Gisele Fetterman talks philanthropy at Jewish Women’s Foundation’s annual meeting
Philanthropy‘What keeps you up at night?’

Gisele Fetterman talks philanthropy at Jewish Women’s Foundation’s annual meeting

"I think remaining tender in a world that rewards the strong is a radical act of rebellion." — Gisele Fetterman

Gisele Fetterman was the keynote speaker at the Jewish Women’s Foundation’s annual meeting. (Photo by Abigail Hakas)
Gisele Fetterman was the keynote speaker at the Jewish Women’s Foundation’s annual meeting. (Photo by Abigail Hakas)

By the time Gisele Fetterman took the stage at the Jewish Women’s Foundation of Greater Pittsburgh’s annual meeting on June 4 as its keynote speaker, she had already stopped by Free Store 15104 — a nonprofit she founded to provide essentials in Braddock — and fought a fire.

Fetterman is the picture of Pittsburgh-based women-led philanthropy, a jack-of-all-trades with seemingly boundless energy: a volunteer firefighter with the Rivers Edge Volunteer Fire Department, mother of three, wife to Sen. John Fetterman, founder of Free Store 15104 and co-founder of 412 Food Rescue.

It’s a formidable resume and not even a complete summary of her work, but it’s more than enough to give her a near-mythic status.

Instead, she chooses humanity.

She began her speech by recounting a time she moderated a panel of female leaders in politics, nonprofits and business, asking them how they handled the difficult days when the voices of critics dominate.

“I ignore it” and “I give it back to them,” she remembers hearing. When it came time for Fetterman’s response, she had a different approach.

“I cry,” she said.

She remembers “mass disappointment in the room,” but afterward several women told her that they cry, too; they just weren’t ready to admit it publicly.

“I think remaining tender in a world that rewards the strong is a radical act of rebellion,” she said.

This mindset was evident as Fetterman chronicled the childhood that led her to the life she lives now. She grew up as an undocumented immigrant in the United States after her mother moved her out of Brazil due to violence.

In a slideshow, she showed an image of her passport: A young Fetterman, just 7 years old, sports an almost unreadable expression. Her dark hair is braided into two pigtails with blunt bangs covering her eyebrows.

“I’m still mad about those bangs,” Fetterman quipped.

Her mother decided to move the family to the States after having dinner with Fetterman’s aunt, who said she had “only been robbed seven times” that year.

“I lived in a place of danger, and there were no guarantees that you would make it home that day,” Fetterman said. “When folks reach out and they say, ‘Oh, I’d really like to start a nonprofit. I’d like to start a business. Can you help me?’ I always ask them, ‘What keeps you up at night?’”

For Fetterman, the answer is “so much.”

“The suffering of any people I really struggle with, and I try to channel that into the work that I do,” she told the Chronicle following the event.

That passion led her to speak about the importance of philanthropy at the JWF’s meeting.

Panelists at JWF’s annual meeting, from left: Annalisa Gibbs, Emily Loeb, Lily Sassani, Sue Frietsche, and moderator Ilene Fingeret.
The JWF aims to promote societal change for women and girls in Pittsburgh by awarding grants, with at least 50% of funding going to Jewish community organizations.

JWF pools its funding from trustees who read grant proposals and decide which organizations to fund. At its annual meeting, JWF highlighted the work of three of its 17 grantees from 2023: the Women’s Law Project, Eden’s Farm and the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh.

The Women’s Law Project is a nonprofit public interest legal organization that provides free legal representation on various issues affecting women and LGTBQIA+ individuals, including reproductive rights and gender justice issues.

A repeated JWF grant recipient, the Women’s Law Project has used funding to fight for improved access to health care for pregnant prisoners, protect the rights of transgender and nonbinary students and represent minors seeking a judicial bypass to obtain an abortion without parental consent.

The JWF awarded the Women’s Law Project a $6,000 grant for operating support as a part of the 2023 general community grantees. The Women’s Law Project fields calls from people seeking legal advice, information and representation.

In the last few months, the Women’s Law Project answered calls on a wide array of issues: a waitress at a club who was fired because of her pregnancy, a parent whose daughter was sexually assaulted in middle school, a woman fired during her maternity leave and a welder facing sexual harassment from coworkers.

Sue Frietsche, the co-executive director of the Women’s Law Project, spent her birthday at JWF’s annual meeting to explain the importance of the work. She recounted a case where a 12-year-old girl privately sought an abortion after being raped, afraid that she would face consequences if her religious family found out.

Frietsche helped her get a court order allowing her to end the pregnancy without her family discovering and worked with her medical providers to get her additional support. Eden’s Farm, a Pittsburgh nonprofit that provides safe housing to victims of human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation, received a $10,000 general community grant from JWF that helped it provide 2,500 nights of safety for victims of human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation.

The grant funds its long-term residential program that offers up to two years of free housing to survivors. Eden’s Farm also provides medical and mental health care, job training and psychoeducational courses to survivors.

As a part of its Jewish Community grants, JWF provided $10,000 to the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh for its collaboration with Pittsburgh Girl Scout Lily Sassani to create a Holocaust education patch. The curriculum is being created by Sassani and the Holocaust Center and will focus on the role that the Girl Guides, Europe’s Girl Scouts, played in World War II. Girl Guides contributed to the war effort, fed and healed soldiers and kept morale high.

“These Guides, particularly the Jewish Guides do not deserve to be depicted as just victims, but as heroes, women and girls who stepped up in a time of great need,” Sassani said. “My hope is that by teaching this, it will compel women and girls to embody their bravery.”

After the Girl Scouts are taught about the impact of the Girl Guides, they will complete a project to address an injustice and become “upstanders in their own community,” according to Emily Loeb, the Holocaust Center’s director of programs and education. This project could be anything from a poem to an interview with a Holocaust survivor.

Once the curriculum is approved, the patch will be available to 3,200 middle school and high school Girl Scouts in southwestern Pennsylvania, with the hopes of eventually expanding the patch to more regions throughout the country and providing the curriculum to other organizations working with young people.

The JWF also contributed to a fund that gave five $25,000 grants to five Israeli organizations seeking to support women: The Adva Center, Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel, Itach Ma’Aki – Women Lawyers for Social Justice, The Ruth and Emanuel Rackman Center and WePower.

The evening concluded with a presentation honoring Barbara Rosenberger, who is ending her term as JWF co-chair and will be replaced by Gerri Sperling. After the meeting ended, Fetterman affirmed the importance of supporting women-led and women-focused philanthropy.

“When you invest in women, you support entire families and entire communities,” she told the Chronicle. “I think any time we get women together, they have the power to change things.” PJC

Abigail Hakas is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.

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