Longtime human services leader Deborah Covington retires

JUF executive was dedicated to people in need

Debbie Convington image
Covington, far left, with other Chicagoans, attending the March for Israel in Washington, D.C. in November.

Deborah Covington has rooted her life in the belief that to whom much has been given, much is required. 

Her 35-year career at JUF, which was capped by serving at the helm of JUF's Planning & Allocations department, reflected the same principle.  

"If you were among those fortunate to have worked with Debbie, you have learned much, been inspired by her passion and competence, and know what a unique communal treasure we have had in our midst," said JUF President Lonnie Nasatir.  

Covington, who retired in March, is a devoted Christian who spent her storied career working in Jewish communal service.  

"In both faith traditions is the concept that we are responsible for each other," Covington said. "I believe we are doing sacred work."

Prior to joining JUF in 1989, Covington began her tenure in administration at the State of Illinois' statewide refugee services and helped launch JUF's own Russian-speaking Refugee resettlement program.

"I continue to be moved by the strength and dignity of people who have fled persecution and have no other place to go," she said. "How can you not help?"

She vividly remembers when Yugoslavia broke apart, and her work included welcoming Bosnian refugee families with young children the same age as her own son and daughter.

"I thought, 'There but for the grace of G-d go I,'" Covington said. 

In the decades since, Covington has held several positions with increasing levels of responsibility. She became Vice President of Planning and Allocations in 2012-overseeing an overall budget of $230 million-and was named Senior Vice President in 2020. 

"I am always aware that this is not my money, it's the community's money," Covington said. "I am really conscious of the fact that people have chosen to give us their hard-earned resources so we can do better in the world. That puts an awesome responsibility on us to be worthy of the trust that we have been given."   

Over and above her stewardship of JUF's Overall Planning and Allocations Committee and its commissions, she served as JUF's representative to multiple federal, state, and local governmental bodies, along with significant foundation and civic organizations, including the Michael Reese Health Trust, Donor's Forum, and United Way of Chicago.

"What I have loved about being here is playing a part, in ways large and small, to make a difference in people's lives," Covington said.  

Fingerprints of Covington's leadership are evident in many corners of Chicago's Jewish community and beyond, most recently in JUF's Israel Emergency Fund, Mental Health, and COVID Emergency Relief funding programs. 

"The COVID pandemic started right around Purim," Covington said. "I kept thinking about the story of Esther, where Mordechai says to Esther: 'if not through you, G-d will still protect us, but perhaps you were put here for such a time as this.' 

"I felt that JUF was created for a time such as this. We were there for COVID relief, we were there for Jews from the former Soviet Union, and now we are there for Israel" in the aftermath of October 7. 

Prior to her tenure at JUF, Covington was director of United Way's Volunteer Center in Greater Richmond/Petersburg, Virginia and served as program director for Crisis Intervention of Houston.

A graduate of Baylor University with her bachelor's degree in psychology and religion, Covington earned her MSW at Virginia Commonwealth University. 

"Throughout her career, Debbie was passionate in her pursuit of caring for those in need in the most effective ways possible, and I will miss her as a trusted partner," Nasatir said. "She wanted to be a catalyst to make things happen, and she was someone who was never focused on getting credit-just in making the world better."

Linda S. Haase is Senior Associate Vice President of Marketing Communications at JUF. 


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