Meet San Diego’s Lions Behind the Pin


Lions of Judah wear their pins proudly as an internationally recognized symbol of philanthropy, commitment, Jewish values, and sisterhood. But the pin, as valuable as it is, doesn't have the power on its own to share what being a Lion really means.

Jewish Federation of San Diego’s “Lion Behind the Pin” initiative includes capturing and sharing the stories of our local Lions to help inspire others to join their sacred mission of filling the world with loving kindness. Read their stories below.

If you are a Lion who would like to share her story, please click here.

nullSimone Abelsohn

“I'm a firm believer that the bond between women is a special, unique friendship that most men do not get to experience. And it is this connection that helps us move mountains, further than men can, with a love and kindness – and maybe a little sass.”


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My journey with Federation started as a young adult, inspired by the profound impact our local Federation had on me during child hood. While the exact timing of my first gift eludes me, the lasting impression it left prompted my commitment to giving back.


The reason for my continued support lies in the consistent awe I feel for Federation's crucial role locally, nationally, and abroad. Serving on the Irael & Overseas committee, I witnessed the monumental impact Federation has made in Israel, particularly in Shar Ha'Negev, forming meaningful relationships along the way. Board involvement provided firsthand insight into the multitude of lives our Federation touches. My experiences with Shabbat San Diego, the Kindness Initiative, and now the Lawrence Family JCC, revealed how Federation fosters unity, creating a community for all and facilitating our work seamlessly.


In 2018, I became a Lion of Judah, a decision fueled by my Federation journey and a pivotal moment of joining the National Young Leadership Cabinet. This step has proven to be one of the best decisions of my life. Cabinet has not only granted me lifelong friendships but also the opportunity to witness our Federation's work globally, developing my leadership skills and reinforcing my love for the organization.


One cherished Lion moment revolves around the Shabbat Dinner during my first Cabinet Retreat. The exclusive Lions Only event, celebrating Jewish identity, the culmination of a week of learning, and the development of leadership skills, stands out. Each of us was individually recognized, invited to the front, and adorned with a beaded necklace featuring a white pin with a gold lion—a keepsake that still holds a special place in my heart. It encapsulates the pride and sisterhood felt in that moment and echoes the incredible sisterhood moments since.


For future generations of Lions, I hope they always remember their "why" and continue inspiring and building community together. The unique bond between women, a special friendship with a depth men may not experience, propels us to move mountains with love, kindness, and perhaps a hint of sass. The legacy I envision for future Lions is one of enduring connection, shared purpose, and the empowerment that comes from moving forward together.

Jessica EffresJessica Effress

“Looking to the future, I hope that future generations of Lions share the profound sense of sisterhood I experience when in a room filled with women who, like me, have chosen to make a meaningful commitment to the Jewish Federation and the broader Jewish community.”


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Around the year 2000, I made my inaugural contribution to Federation—a $180 minimum gift to attend a women's event at a paint-your-pottery studio in Minneapolis. Freshly arrived in town, I saw this as an opportunity to forge new friendships. Encouragement from my mother-in-law and some of my husband's cousins, who were involved in the Minneapolis Federation, added to my motivation.


Witnessing Federation's impactful work on various missions in Israel and Europe solidified my commitment to ongoing support. The firsthand experience convinced me that Federation possesses the knowledge and expertise to identify and address the most pressing needs within the Jewish community. I trust them to allocate my contribution where it will have the most significant impact.


In 2004, during my first National Young Leadership Cabinet Retreat, I ascended to the prestigious rank of Lion of Judah. Although the minimum Cabinet gift was $3,600—a leap for me—I found inspiration in the remarkable young women around me, motivating me to exceed the minimum and become a Lion. Making a Lion gift in my name serves as a powerful symbol for my children, reinforcing my dedication to the Jewish community and setting an example for others to follow.


One of my cherished Lion moments occurred at that first Cabinet Retreat, where a professional from Minneapolis presented me with a pin during the campaign totals announcement dinner. Wearing the pin alongside other young women who made that commitment felt profoundly meaningful.


In 2010, after graduating from Cabinet and benefiting from leadership training, exposure to inspiring speakers, and travel opportunities, I endowed my Lion gift. It was a way to solidify my commitment, and I hope my legacy inspires other women to make contributions in their names.


Fast forward to the 2023 International Lion of Judah Conference, where I was honored as a Kipnis-Wilson-Friedland Award Winner. The ceremony was a moving experience. Surrounded by the incredible women of the San Diego delegation, I received a scarf held aloft like a chuppah while the


Eshet Chayil prayer resonated. It was a beautiful moment, brimming with love and pride from my fellow Lions.


Looking to the future, I hope that future generations of Lions share the profound sense of sisterhood I experience when in a room filled with women who, like me, have chosen to make a meaningful commitment to the Jewish Federation and the broader Jewish community.

Heidi GantwerkHeidi Gantwerk

“I want women to continue to stand in their power and agency, to know that the women who came before them working together made strong choices, started and funded programs, saved lives, strengthened community and built strong Jewish identity.”


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In 2005, my husband and I made our initial contribution to Federation during a global year of emergencies. Amid natural disasters worldwide, we had young children, and while our day-to-day expenses were considerable, we believed in Federation's ability to direct our donation to those in dire need.


Fast forward to today, and my connection to Federation has become integral to my life. Having relocated to San Diego from the East Coast without knowing anyone, we contemplated moving back until we found profound connection within the local Jewish community. The impact of Jewish camps, day schools, synagogues, the JCC, and our commitment to Israel shaped our social, spiritual, and philanthropic focus.


And now, as the CEO, I witness firsthand, every day, the passion and dedication of the incredible team working to make Jewish life thrive in San Diego and globally. Federation's thoughtful response to global emergencies, combined with the personal benefits my family received, makes it the perfect destination for our philanthropy.


Upon assuming the role of CEO, I became a Lion of Judah and a major donor. This decision reflected my commitment to building the organization and served as a model, emphasizing that Federation is not merely an afterthought but a top philanthropic priority. The symbolism of being the first woman to lead the organization while becoming a Lion holds deep personal and communal meaning. Every time I don the pin or connect with Lions worldwide, the sense of empowerment and shared commitment resonates profoundly.


One memorable Lion moment was receiving my pin during a lunch with our Chief Development Officer and a respected friend. Learning the story behind it and realizing its significance in celebrating women leaders created a powerful connection. Travelling and meeting International Lions of Judah has strengthened this bond, and attending the 50th anniversary LOJ Conference in Arizona alongside 18 impactful San Diego women was uplifting.


While I have endowed my Lion gift, my hope is to share Federation's significance with my sons and, if they have wives or daughters someday, pass on the pin and the value of making a difference. Broadly, I hope to inspire other women to recognize their power, knowing the choices of those who came before them have shaped communities and built strong Jewish identities.


Looking to the future, I envision the Lion of Judah Society's impact growing financially and programmatically. I want women to contribute as much philanthropy as men, taking on leadership roles and becoming major influencers in their communities and globally. I hope they create, inspire, connect, pass on, and continue building a legacy of strength and commitment.


Sonia IsraelSonia Israel

“I hope future generations of Lions will embrace their role within this robust community. I wish for them to grasp the importance of supporting Federation's mission, to actively contribute to building our community and others worldwide. Understanding the legacy of past generations and their impact on shaping the future is crucial.”


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Many, many years ago, around four decades to be precise, I made my first gift to Federation at the Pomegranate level. At that time, I had been in San Diego for 46 years, deeply involved in various Jewish organizations in town. However, Jewish Federation wasn't initially high on my list of priorities. I contributed what I deemed a minimum donation and found joy in wearing the Pomegranate pin.


As the years passed, I continued my annual contributions to Federation, responding positively to incremental requests for small increases. It wasn't until the spring of 2023 that something shifted. That year, I decided to embark on the CommUNITY Trip to Israel, and it was a transformative experience. I gained insight into the significant changes Federation had undergone, witnessing the incredible work it now accomplishes. It felt like an entirely new agency, successfully uniting the Jewish community—a feat that others had struggled to achieve.


In spring 2023, prompted by Jane F's invitation, I became a Lion of Judah. The timing was impeccable—no one had ever asked me to join this prestigious group before. Being a Lion holds a multifaceted significance for me. Contributing at a higher level makes me proud, knowing I'm supporting Federation in its diverse goals. Connecting with other strong women in the Lion community is empowering. Being part of a national network of women with a shared objective—to strengthen Jewish communities globally—brings a sense of purpose.


Although I'm relatively new to the Lion community, a standout moment occurred during the CommUNITY Trip to Israel. In the penthouse of a long-time Lion, we gathered with Lions from around the world. That night, I received my Lion pin, and it filled me with immense pride to be part of such a formidable group of women.


Looking ahead, I hope future generations of Lions will embrace their role within this robust community. I wish for them to grasp the importance of supporting Federation's mission, to actively contribute to building our community and others worldwide. Understanding the legacy of past generations and their impact on shaping the future is crucial. In essence, I envision a continuum of strength, support, and commitment within the Lion of Judah community for generations to come.