Stories & Voices
How Smart Investing and Jewish Values Meet
Four Questions for Devana Cohen
March 16th, 2023

Securing the Jewish future is no small undertaking. Thankfully, thousands of individuals and families have generously left legacy gifts to support UJA’s mission for generations to come, creating a $1 billion+ endowment.

Today, 20% of our annual operating budget is drawn from this endowment. And it’s the endowment that enables us to allocate funds quickly in times of crisis, as we did during the pandemic.

Meet Devana Cohen, Chief Investment Officer, whose responsibilities include oversight of our endowment. Her financial savvy, coupled with a strong commitment to justice, helps guide our investments.

UJA Federation of New York >>

(Q) Could you tell us what you do as Chief Investment Officer?

(A) I supervise a four-person team that oversees UJA’s endowment and retirement assets. We report to our investment committee, which is made up of volunteers with expertise in investment management. We work hand-in-hand to hire the right investment managers and help ensure that the portfolios meet their return goals with the right amount of risk for each portfolio. Everything we do is with a strong focus on governance, making sure there are no conflicts of interest and that everything’s aligned with the organization.

(Q) How do Jewish values inform endowment investments? What sets UJA’s endowment apart from similar ones?

(A) When we manage the endowment, we’re really focused on the needs of the organization, which are highly tied to Jewish values and our mission. For example, we know that our portfolio’s cash needs tend to be greatest when there's some sort of economic instability — because the organization may need additional capital to fulfill the mission — and that usually coincides with a downturn in markets. So one thing that makes our portfolio unique from other endowments and foundations is a focus on making sure we have adequate liquidity in the times when it's most difficult to sell securities.

(Q) Ah interesting — could you give an example where a potential investment might clash with our mission and how you’ve handled that?

(A) Sure. A recent example is, in the middle of the Covid crisis, we declined to invest in credit card receivables — a strategy where you're collecting on credit card debt — because it didn’t seem right, considering the financial impact of the pandemic on people in need. Instead, we invested more in an asset class called specialty finance, where we provide capital to financial companies that in turn lend to non-nontraditional borrowers. That might be people who don't have the best credit scores or don't have traditional credit histories. We thought this was really aligned with our mission of helping people, and at the same time, helpful in meeting our return goals for the endowment.

(Q) Could you share how your background informs your work?

(A) I'm a first-generation college graduate, my parents were immigrants. My father is from Argentina and my mother is from Mexico — and they weren’t able to graduate from college, but they were able to provide me with the resources and education to get where I am today. My mother was always really focused on equality and justice, so when I first started working at UJA 10 years ago, it was something that resonated with me.

As a Jew of Color, I often felt like I was living in two worlds — living in a Latino world and a separate Jewish world. It was something I had a hard time reconciling. Then over the last few years, through UJA and through my synagogue, I found other people who have these experiences and it’s been inspirational for me, this idea that I could own both parts of my identity in a way that I didn’t feel like I could before.

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