Category Archives: Business & Finance

Jews in the World of Business and Finance

Jew of the Week: Johann Kremenezky

The Man Who Powered Europe—and Zionism

Yonah Yosipovich Leibensohn Kremenezky (1850-1934) was born in Odessa, Ukraine to a Russian-Jewish family. He studied electrical engineering and worked on designing Russia’s first railways. In 1874, Kremenezky moved to Berlin to further his studies at the city’s Technical University. He then got a job working for Siemens, and was sent across Europe to build the continent’s first street lighting systems, starting in Paris and ending up in Vienna in 1878, where he settled permanently. Two years later, Kremenezky founded his own factory that produced lamps and batteries—the first of its kind in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. By 1883, he had become very well-known as a scientist-industrialist (a European Edison), and Crown Prince Rudolf personally asked him to help “electrify” his empire. Kremenezky did just that, laying electrical cables and setting up lighting systems, as well as building the empire’s first power plant. Meanwhile, his lamp factory designed all sorts of new lights, including ornamental bulbs and what we now know as “Christmas lights”. Kremenezky lights were a huge hit, exported around the world, even to the United States. For playing a key role in rebuilding and repowering Vienna after World War I, Kremenezky was awarded with the Ehrenbürgerrecht, the city’s highest decoration for citizens (a street in Vienna was named after him, too). Meanwhile, back in 1896, Kremenezky had met Theodor Herzl and the two became best friends. Kremenezky became a passionate Zionist, gave countless funds in support of the movement, as well as essential electrical know-how to power the future State. In 1898, he set a 500-franc prize for anyone who would write a fitting hymn for the Zionist movement. This eventually led to the adoption of HaTikvah as Israel’s national anthem. Around the same time, Hermann Schapira proposed the establishment of a Jewish National Fund that would legally purchase land in Israel and help settle Jews there. Schapira didn’t live to realize his dream, but Kremenezky was convinced and established the Jewish National Fund a couple of years later, serving as its first chairman. It was he who came up with the JNF “blue box” to collect charity. The JNF went on to play a central role in the establishment of Israel, purchasing over 50% of Israel’s landmass, developing some 250,000 acres of its land, building nearly 200 dams and reservoirs, and establishing over 1000 parks. Perhaps most famously, the JNF has planted over 260 million trees in the Holy Land, partly thanks to its Tu b’Shevat tree-planting drive which still runs to this day. A true friend, Kremenezky was the only one by Herzl’s bedside when he passed away, and financially supported Herzl’s family afterwards. When Kremenezky himself passed away, he was eulogized as a “simple, modest Jew, who did a great for the Zionist movement.” He was awarded the prestigious Wilhelm Exner Medal for excellence in scientific research and innovation, and multiple institutions and streets in Israel are named after him.

Words of the Week

There is no significant example in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion.
– Will Durant

Jew of the Week: Sheldon Adelson

In Memory of Israel’s Greatest Defender

Sheldon Gary Sholom Gedaliah Adelson (1933-2021) was born in Boston to a working-class, immigrant Jewish family of Ukrainian, Lithuanian, and English heritage. Even as a child he thought about how to get the family out of financial hardship, starting his first business at just 12 years of age by selling newspapers. Three years later, he started a new business operating a vending machine. His studies didn’t go well, and he dropped out of both college and a trade school before joining the military. After his army service, Adelson started a new business selling toiletries, followed by several more businesses before making his big break with a charter-bus tour company. In his 30s, he had already become a millionaire. A few years later, he was the co-creator of one of the first computer industry trade shows. The business grew exponentially and was sold to a Japanese company in 1995 for $862 million (of which $500 million went to Adelson). Meanwhile, Adelson had started investing in Las Vegas real estate. His first major venture there was purchasing the Sands Hotel and Casino for $110 million. A few years later, he dreamed of building a massive resort hotel and the result was The Venetian. Adelson also built a casino in Pennsylvania, in Singapore, and the Sands Macao, which was China’s first Vegas-like casino. The latter was one of Adelson’s most profitable investments, with some estimates suggesting it multiplied his wealth by fourteen times! In 2007, Adelson started a new conservative-leaning newspaper in Israel, called Israel Hayom. Distributed for free, it became the country’s number-one weekday paper. Originally a Democrat, Adelson grew disenchanted with the party and became a Republican. He always believed business and politics should not mix, and that wealthy people shouldn’t influence elections. However, when he discovered how strongly some wealthy people were influencing elections, he felt he had no choice but to do so as well. Over the years, Adelson donated hundreds of millions to support various Republican candidates. While he initially did not favour Trump, he ended up backing him due to Trump’s promises to help Israel. He gave around $65 million for Trump’s 2016 campaign, another $113 million to Republicans in 2018, followed by another $100 million in the last election. Trump’s erratic behaviour and obsession with election fraud led to a rift between the two, and they had not spoken following the election. A generous philanthropist, Adelson gave nearly $500 million for Birthright Israel (being its largest individual donor), $50 million to Yad Vashem, $25 million to build a medical school at Ariel University in Israel’s historic heartland, as well as nearly $20 million to fund Israel’s young space-exploration industry. His contributions played a key role in getting Benjamin Netanyahu into office in 1996. In the US, Adelson’s foundation funds medical research at 10 different universities. Aside from Las Vegas’ casinos, Adelson has built a state-of-the-art school, substance abuse centre, and research clinic in the city. His other major passion was fighting against the legalization of drugs, including cannabis. This was personal for him, having lost his son to a drug overdose. Adelson gave millions to ensure no other parent would experience such a tragedy. Sadly, Adelson succumbed to cancer earlier this week. Over the years, he gained a reputation as Israel’s greatest defender, and the biggest advocate of the Jewish people. Friend and fellow-billionaire Michael Steinhardt has said that “Whether he is in the Oval Office, the Prime Minister’s Office, a senator’s office, or a Congressman’s office, his first goal was to be an advocate for the Jewish people and the Jewish community, not for his own personal gain.”

Words of the Week

Those who never change their mind never change anything.
– Winston Churchill 

Jew of the Week: Baron Maurice de Hirsch

Moses of the 19th Century

Moritz Tzvi von Hirsch auf Gereuth (1831-1896) was born in Munich to a wealthy German-Jewish family. His grandfather was a banker for the Bavarian king, and became the first Jew to be permitted to own land in Bavaria. His father also served as the court banker, and became a German baron. Hirsch studied in Brussels, then took a banking job himself at age 17. Years later, he branched off on his own, eventually making his fortune from sugar, copper, and railroads. One of his boldest projects was building a Vienna-to-Istanbul rail line. Hirsch settled in Paris where he lived for the remainder of his life, going by the French version of his name, Maurice de Hirsch. In 1860, the Alliance Israélite Universelle (Kol Israel Haverim) organization was founded in Paris to secure human rights and education for Jews around the world. Hirsch became their biggest supporter, essentially bankrolling their operation to the tune of several hundred thousand pounds a year. The organization was most famous for building Jewish schools, including the first schools in pre-State Israel. The Alliance schools were also the first to teach a Hebrew curriculum, playing a key role in the language’s revival. Hirsch also donated countless sums to schools and hospitals across Germany, France, and England. He paid for the renowned Pasteur Institute’s entire biochemistry building. In the last two decades of his life, Hirsch was devoted to easing the plight of Russian Jews. He founded the Jewish Colonization Association in 1891 with a starting budget of £2 million pounds. The money was used to resettle Eastern European Jews in the Americas (particularly in Canada and Argentina), as well as in Ottoman Palestine. Altogether, Hirsch donated £18 million to the organization, the equivalent of about $4 billion today! Needless to say, it played a massive role in getting the Zionist movement off the ground and re-establishing a Jewish state in Israel (though de Hirsch himself didn’t believe it would ever actually happen!) as well as saving countless lives from pogroms and oppression. Maurice de Hirsch is ranked among the most generous philanthropists of all time. His wife, Clara de Hirsch, is also on this list, in her own right. She came from a wealthy banking family, too, and donated another 200 million francs of her own funds. When the couple tragically lost their only son in 1887, Maurice de Hirsch declared: “My son I have lost, but not my heir; humanity is my heir.” For his efforts to launch a mass-exodus and liberation of Jews, he has been called the “Moses of the 19th Century”.

Words of the Week

I suppose I shall spend all my money in this movement. But, after all, what is the use of money unless you do some good with it?
– Baron Maurice de Hirsch