Bradenton woman bequests $1 million to Jewish organization

cnudi@bradenton.comJuly 10, 2014 

MANATEE -- Semha Zimmerman lived through epic historical times that sometimes put her in jeopardy because of her Jewish heritage.

After her death in March at 92, Zimmerman left more than $1 million to the Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee to help teach lessons about that history and keep her heritage alive.

"She wanted to make sure what money she had was put to good use," said Donna Sobel, her good friend and at


The federation is dedicated to preserving Jewish heritage, helping those in need and supporting Israel.

"We have not fleshed out what we planned on doing with the gift," said Chris Alexander, federation director of communications. "We're still somewhat overwhelmed by her generosity."

The board will decide how to use the bequest after receiving staff recommendations, Alexander said.

At Zimmerman's request, the money will be used in honor of her husband, Abraham, who died in 2002.

Dr. Anthony Stavola of Roanoke, Va., said his aunt, who survived a refugee camp, had a positive outlook on life.

"She had to deal with a lot of adversity in her life," said Stavola, whose mother is Zimmerman's older sister, "but I don't recall her saying anything negative about anyone else and she always found a way to put things in a positive light."

Sobel said Zimmerman became a client after her husband died.

"After we completed business, we were talking and I mentioned how my son, Zack, was going to celebrate bar mitzvah and I didn't know Hebrew," Sobel said.

Zimmerman offered to teach Hebrew to Sobel so she could read the Torah with her son during the ceremony.

They became fast friends and stayed close until her death.

Semha Zimmerman's life story reads like a movie script, growing up in a historical Jewish community in Iraq, fleeing to Israel and finding a new life in the United States.

Born March 10, 1922, in Bagdad, Zimmerman's Jewish ancestry is rooted in the Hebrew diaspora from the Kingdom of Judah to Babylon 2,500 years ago.

She grew up and lived peacefully in a community with Muslims and Christians, learning four languages -- Arabic, French, Hebrew and English, according to Sobel.

"Semha spoke Hebrew at home, French at school and Arabic in the community," Sobel said. "She learned English on her own."

The attorney said her friend told her the Iraqi people loved the United States after World War I and many parents named their children Woodrow, after President Woodrow Wilson.

Sentiments changed when the British left the Arabian Peninsula after World War II ended. The country became anti-Semitic and increasingly violent.

Her father disappeared. Family members suspected he was shot.

Her only brother fled to the newly created country of Israel to avoid being conscripted into the Iraqi army and Zimmerman, her mother and sisters were left behind.

A mob eventually came into their Bagdad neighborhood looking for Jews. Their Muslim neighbor saved them and put himself in danger by telling the mob no Jews lived there.

Shortly afterward in 1951, the neighbor helped Semha and her family flee Iraq to Israel where she lived as a refugee.

"If asked if she hated Muslims or Islam, she would say absolutely not," Sobel said. "Semha would say, 'They saved my life and I wouldn't be here.' "

Life in Israel was not easy, Sobel said.

"They lived in a tent for more than a year," she said.

Zimmerman's language skills helped her land a job with an international shipping company.

In 1956, she met Abraham Zimmerman, a German Jew who moved to Israel after his family was killed in the Holocaust.

"He only survived because he was attending school in England," Sobel said.

They married in 1957 and moved to the United States in 1964.

Both had executive positions in New York: Abraham with a utility company and Semha with an insurance firm.

They moved to Bradenton in 2000.

"Semha was an awesome lady," said Sue Lofthouse, assistant director of activities at Freedom Village, where they eventually moved and where Zimmerman started a program called The History Buff. "She was so sharp and knowledgeable about every topic."

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