Author Archives: Jew of the Week

Jew of the Week: Sammy Ofer

Israel’s Richest Man

Sammy Ofer (Courtesy: www.sammy-ofer.com)

Shmuel Hershkovitz (1922-2011) was born in Romania and raised in Haifa. He grew up by the seashore as his father ran a ship supply shop near the port of Haifa. Hershkovitz himself worked for the Dizengoff shipping company in his youth. When World War II broke out, he enlisted in the British Navy and served on a minesweeper in the Mediterranean. He later fought in Israel’s Independence War serving in what would become the Israeli Navy. Hershkovitz was among Israel’s first naval officers. After the war, he worked for the family business before purchasing his own ship to import goods for the new State. As the business expanded and the fleet of ships grew, Hershkovitz changed the name of the company, and his own last name, to “Ofer”. In 1969, the company partly merged with Israel’s largest shipping company, ZIM. It continued to operate under the management of Ofer’s brother, while Ofer himself moved to Europe to start a new shipping business. By the late 80s, his company had a fleet of over 200 ships, and partly owned Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines. It later expanded into real estate, banking, and other industries. Ofer became Israel’s richest man, with a net worth of several billion dollars. He shared a lot of that wealth, too. In 2007, he donated $25 million to the Rambam Hospital in Haifa, most of which went to build a 2000-bed state-of-the-art underground, bomb-proof hospital. (The facility has now been converted into a coronavirus treatment centre.) The following year, Ofer donated £20 million to London’s National Maritime Museum—the largest private donation to a museum in British history. He gave sizeable gifts to Tel Aviv Medical Center and IDC Herzliya as well, and established the Medicines Foundation to subsidize the cost of cancer treatment for those in need. All in all, Ofer donated over $100 million to hospitals in Israel. He also gave $20 million to build the Sammy Ofer Stadium, the home of Maccabi Haifa and Hapoel Haifa soccer clubs and Israel’s second-largest sports facility with over 30,000 seats. In 2008, Ofer was knighted by Queen Elizabeth. His two sons remain among the richest Israelis in the world (though they live in Monaco). Last week, his son Eyal donated 10 million shekels to three Israeli hospitals to help fight coronavirus. His other son Idan gave the largest ever donation (£25 million) in honour of his father to the London Business School, whose townhall has since been renamed the Sammy Ofer Centre.

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Words of the Week

Every Jew is obligated to study Torah, whether he is poor or rich, healthy or ill, young or old. Even if one is destitute or if he has familial obligations, he must still establish fixed times for Torah study.
Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, the Rambam, 1135-1204 (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Talmud Torah 1:8)

Jew of the Week: Benjamin of Tudela

The Jew Who Inspired Marco Polo

A 19th century engraving of ‘Benjamin of Tudela in the Sahara’

Binyamin MiTudela (1130-1173) was born to a religious Sephardic family in the town of Tudela, now in Spain. In 1165, he set out for what is believed to be a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He had a larger objective in mind as well, since this was at the height of the Crusades and a perilous time for anyone to make a pilgrimage, especially Jews. Binyamin wanted to explore all the Jewish communities along the way and to create a detailed map showing the route one should take and where a Jew can find safe refuge on his journey. This would open the door for more Jews to take a trip to their beloved Holy Land. A lover of history and geography, he also wished to leave a record of what the Jewish (and non-Jewish) world looked like in the 12th century. Binyamin recorded all that he saw in his Sefer haMasa’at, “Book of Travels”, also known as Masa’aot Binyamin. His adventures were so popular they were soon translated into just about every European language. Today, the book is among the most important historical documents for scholars of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, as well as of Jewish and Muslim history. A great deal of what we know about that era, including the daily lives of simple people, comes from his book. Some believe that it was this book that may have inspired another, more famous, adventurer about a century later: Marco Polo. Binyamin’s travels took him to France and the Italian Peninsula, then to Greece and across what is today Turkey to the Near East, then to Persia, back around the Arabian Peninsula, to Egypt, and returning to Iberia by way of North Africa. While in Ethiopia, he describes a large Jewish community, which was a key source of information allowing modern-day Ethiopian Jews to be accepted by the State of Israel and the rabbinate. He is possibly the first writer to detail the community of Al-Hashishin, better known as “Assassins”, as well as among the first to describe the Druze. In Posquières, he meets and describes the great Raavad. In Rome, he sees a Rabbi Yechiel, who is an advisor to the Pope, and has “free access to the Pope’s palace”! While in Baghdad, he writes of the Caliph, who is “like a Pope” for Muslims, and that the Caliph is fluent in Hebrew and knows Torah law extensively, though he rules with an iron fist. All in all, Benjamin of Tudela visited and wrote about some 300 cities. Today, there are streets named after him in Jerusalem and in Tudela, Spain, where there is also a high school bearing his name.

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Words of the Week

One day I learned that dreams exist to come true, and since that day I do not sleep for rest. I sleep just to dream.
– Walt Disney