Sima Abarbanel’s Commitment to Women and Girls

For someone who spent 26 years in front of a middle school classroom at Krieger Schechter Day School, who sits on steering committees and co-chairs programs, it may be hard to believe that Sima Abarbanel prefers to take a low profile. But for this committed volunteer, it’s never been about being in the spotlight. 

It’s always been about getting things done. 

Today, this former English teacher is co-chairing membership for Jewish Women’s Giving Foundation (JWGF), a program of The Associated, that incorporates collective philanthropy to improve the lives of women and girls. Having been a member of this giving circle for the past seven years, she hopes to engage other community members who are passionate about making a transformative difference. 


This year you are membership co-chair with Michele Wendell. Tell me why I should join. 

I have to tell you that JWGF is an amazing experience. You become part of a hands-on collective and make important funding decisions that have a real impact on the lives of so many women and girls. You also meet a diverse group of dynamic women, from major grant givers in the community to donors who typically give less. Because we all contribute the same amount to JWGF each year, we all have an equal voice in deciding how we distribute the grant money. 

In addition, we are constantly learning about programs and delving into issues that are affecting our community. 


What kind of issues? 

We brought in Maggie Gunther Osborn from the United Philanthropy Forum, who talked about the importance of participating in the 2020 Census and the impact of the results on the nonprofit world and our overall community.  We’ve heard about Period Poverty, and how it causes women to miss work and school. I was education co-chair for two years and I brought in a panel to talk about women and incarceration.  


Women and Incarceration? 

The Goucher Prison Education Partnership submitted a grant proposal, and some of us had gone on a site visit to the Jessup Correctional facility to look at the program in action. The program brings Goucher college level courses to incarcerated women in Maryland.  

After seeing the impact of their work and learning about the challenges incarcerated women face, the education committee put together a panel that included program administrators, along with a few incarcerated women who participated in the Goucher courses. In addition, a middle school student shared her memoir with our members. Her book dealt with what it was like having an incarcerated parent and the many emotions she had experienced. 

We also tried for a multi-genre approach to learning about the incarcerated population. Podcasts were offered to the members, along with TED talks, books to be read, documentaries to be viewed, poems to be shared, etc. I guess that is from my teaching background – full immersion into a topic!  


What did you learn?  

I learned it takes a village to make an incarcerated person succeed. 


Any other ways JWGF has impacted you, personally? 

One of the organizations that submitted a grant proposal was ¡Adelante Latina!. They offer free, after-school academic enrichment for Latina girls in high school in Baltimore City. They were looking for  substitute teachers to help tutor the students when their regular tutor couldn’t be there. It was the perfect volunteer fit for me.  


With the ongoing pandemic, this year might be different. You probably won’t be able to go on actual site visits? How will you make it work? 

As part of the JWGF, we also grant to women’s programs in Israel. Since we unfortunately can’t visit them, we’ve been holding virtual site visits to help us determine what to fund. We will now do that locally – it doesn’t really lessen the impact of the work these organizations are doing. 


I understand you are also involved with the William and Irene Weinberg Family Baltimore Jewish Film Festival. 

I sit on the steering committee.  Each year, our group reviews films and we put together recommendations for the festival. When I first began doing this, about four years ago, I felt it was important to elevate the festival and bring in professional speakers to talk about the movies and the issues they brought up. 


Do you have a favorite movie you screened? 

I like so many, but I really enjoyed Flawless. It’s an Israeli movie that tackles transgender issues.  

It funny how my various volunteer efforts cross paths.Through JWGF, we heard Jo Ivester speak about her memoir, The Outskirts of HopeShe wrote about growing up in the Deep South, after her father moved the family to Mississippi from Boston. At the time, she mentioned she was writing a book about how her daughter was transitioning to be a boy. When we showed Flawless, I brought her in to talk about her story and transgender issues. 


When you are not volunteering where can people find you? 

I love to bike, hike and run half-marathons. I enjoy working out and I want to stay healthy.  


What don’t people know about you? 

I don’t love the spotlight. When famous singers say they have stage fright, I understand exactly how they are feeling. 

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