Category Archives: Business & Finance

Jews in the World of Business and Finance

Jew of the Week: Abraham Seneor

The Crown Rabbi Who Built Spain

A Castilian maravedi gold coin issued in 1191

Abraham Seneor (1412-1493) was born in Segovia, Castile, into a wealthy Sephardic Jewish family who served as treasurers and accountants for Spanish monarchs. Seneor himself served the Castilian crown. In 1469, he was the key negotiator that arranged the marriage of Isabella of Castile to Ferdinand of Aragon, resulting in the eventual birth of the new Kingdom of Spain. Seneor became Isabella’s main advisor and confidante. In 1480, Isabella decreed that Seneor would receive a lifetime pension of a whopping 100,000 maravedi coins per year for his invaluable services. He was also appointed the Jewish chief justice and “crown rabbi”. In this role, he worked together with his close friend and fellow rabbi-treasurer, Don Isaac Abarbanel. Between the two of them, they were able to raise the sums needed for the Spanish to defeat the Moors in the War of Grenada. They were also the ones that got crown support and funding for Christopher Columbus’ first trip to America. Seneor often intervened on behalf of the Jews, and saved countless Jewish lives by ransoming those that had been captured by pirates. In 1492, the Spanish decreed the Edict of Expulsion to exile all Jews who did not convert to Christianity. Seneor was 80 years old, and knew he wouldn’t survive exile and expulsion. While the younger Abarbanel refused to stay in Spain (although he was given an exemption), the older Seneor decided to convert, at least publicly, in order to keep his influential role and try to ease the plight of the Jews as much as possible. He helped secure temporary refugee for the Jews in Portugal, then did whatever he could to make sure the Jewish exiles did not lose all of their wealth. Still, he was unable to survive the stress of the ordeal and passed away just months after the Expulsion. Seneor had taken on the new name Fernando Coronel, starting a new lineage of Spanish nobility. The Coronel children continued to play important roles in Spanish affairs for decades to come. Many of them were arrested by the Inquisition for continuing to practice Judaism in secret; some were executed and others deported. A great number ultimately returned to Judaism in Holland and the Americas.

Words of the Week

Israel was extraordinary in being the one socially revolutionary people in the Near East to produce a literature and to survive as a distinctive cultural and religious entity.
Norman Gottwald, renowned professor of Biblical studies and political activist

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