Category Archives: Religious Leaders

Spiritual and Religious Greats of the Jewish People

Jew of the Week: Abba Hillel Silver

The Reform Rabbi Who Made Israel Happen

Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver

Abraham Silver (1893-1963) was born in what is today Lithuania (then Poland) to an Orthodox Jewish family, the son and grandson of rabbis. The family settled in New York when he was nine years old. He first studied at the Orthodox Yeshivat Etz Chaim (now Yeshiva University), where he founded a Zionist youth club that later became Young Judea, America’s first Zionist youth organization. He eventually took up studies at the University of Cincinnati and Hebrew Union College, America’s main seminary for Reform rabbis. (It was during this time that he changed his name to Abba Hillel Silver.) After graduating, he served as the rabbi of a small town in West Virginia for two years, and then took the helm of Temple Tifereth-Israel in Cleveland, which is still one of the largest Reform synagogues in America. He went on to serve in this position for nearly 46 years, and the synagogue would come to be known as “Silver’s Temple”. He made the congregation less “Reform” and more traditional—Sabbath services were held on Sunday (!) before he took over and moved them back to Saturday. He was also instrumental in making Zionism acceptable within Reform Judaism, which was staunchly anti-Zionist at the time. Meanwhile, he founded the Anti-Nazi League, and managed to form a successful boycott of Nazi German goods in the 1930s. Silver was not only concerned with the Jewish community, but became well known as a worker’s rights and civil rights activist. Among other achievements, he helped draft Ohio’s first unemployment insurance laws. His greatest passion was the re-establishment of a Jewish state in Israel. Silver campaigned across the country to raise funds and support (among both Jews and Christians). He co-founded the United Jewish Appeal, and between 1946 and 1949 headed the American branch of the Jewish Agency. Silver also met with President Truman numerous times to get him to recognize a Jewish state. It was Silver who gave the critical speech at the United Nations on May 8, 1947, convincing the international body to vote for Partition. His words were later described as “Israel’s acceptance speech”. He returned a year later in May of 1948 to deliver the news to the United Nations that Israel had declared independence. Had Chaim Weizmann not accepted, it is believed Silver would have been Israel’s first president. In 1952, Silver was selected to give the blessings at President Eisenhower’s inauguration. He won numerous awards, and also published seven popular books on Judaism, along with many penetrating sermons and essays. The town of Kfar Silver in Israel is named after him. Today is his yahrzeit.

Words of the Week

Generally his view was that it was not new liturgies we needed, but the reading of prayers in the kind of earnest and exalting way that could not help but uplift the mood of the worshippers. He himself conducted every service as though it were fresh, revelatory, almost with a Hasidic touch of intensity—with kavvanah, which was one of his favorite words. He constantly urged me to read, to study, and to write…
Leon I. Feuer, Abba Hillel Silver: A Personal Memoir

Jews of the Week: Albert, Eliyahu, and Sasson David Sassoon

In honour of Jew of the Week’s 9th birthday this November, we will feature a month-long series on the Sassoon family, the “Rothschilds of the East”. This is Part 2. Click here to read Part 1, and here to read Part 3. 

David Sassoon (seated) and his sons (left to right) Elias, Albert, and Sasson David.

Abdullah David Sassoon (1818-1896), the eldest son of David Sassoon, was born in Baghdad and raised in Bombay, India. He took over as head of the family business when his father passed away. At the same time, he served on Bombay’s Legislative Council, helping to run the bustling city. In 1873, Abdullah took a trip to England and decided to settle there. He formally changed his name to “Albert”, and moved the headquarters of the business to London, leaving the Bombay branch to his younger brother Solomon. In 1874, Albert opened a new subsidiary, Sassoon Spinning and Weaving Company, and the following year built the Sassoon Docks, the first wet docks in Western India, which still operate today in Mumbai. He paid for the reconstruction of the prestigious Elphinstone High School, and turned one of the family homes into India’s first and oldest museum. In 1866 he was awarded the Order of the Star of India, and in 1872 was made a British Knight Companion of the Order of Bath. The Shah of Persia awarded him the Order of Lion and Sun for his work in Persia’s development, and Queen Victoria knighted him and made him a baronet in 1890. He founded the David Sassoon Benevolent Institution, which provided thousands of scholarships to support the education of both Indians and Jews.

The second son of David Sassoon, Eliyahu David Sassoon (1820-1880), was also born in Baghdad and raised in Bombay. At the age of 24, he moved to Guangzhou to start a branch of the family business in China. He later oversaw further expansion across China and into much of Japan. In 1867, Eliyahu (now known more commonly as Elias) decided to break off from the family business and start his own company, E.D. Sassoon & Co. He abandoned the opium trade—which was now showing its unfortunate side-effects—and instead traded in fruits, spices, and teas, as well as silks and metals. He built what is probably the first synagogue in Hong Kong, as well as Maternity Hospital and the Sassoon Infirm Asylum in Pune, India.

The third son, Sasson David Sassoon (1832-1867) was born in Bombay, but sent to study in Baghdad’s illustrious Jewish schools. Despite being born with a heart defect and being chronically ill, Sasson worked hard for the family business and travelled widely. He first ran the Shanghai branch, then in 1858 moved to London to open his own bank. Sasson was renowned for his wisdom and ability to speak multiple languages at ease. In fact, he was the head Hebrew examiner at the London Jews’ Free School, then the world’s largest Jewish school with over 4000 students. He was also on the council of Jews’ College and was the gabbai (warden) of London’s Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue. Sasson financially supported all of these institutions, too, among many others in London. He presided over a committee that sent an expedition to the Jews of “China, Abyssinia, and the East”. Sadly, Sasson succumbed to his ill health at the young age of 35.

Left to right: Albert Museum, India’s first and oldest museum, converted from an old Sassoon family home; the Elphinstone High School; Sassoon Docks, the first wet docks in Mumbai.

Words of the Week

Money doesn’t excite me, my ideas excite me.
– Walt Disney 

Click here for Part 3

Jews of the Week: Sasson ben Saleh and David Sassoon

Two years ago, for Jew of the Week’s 7th birthday in November, we featured a month-long series on one of the world’s most famous Jewish families, the Rothschilds. This year, for Jew of the Week’s 9th birthday, we will feature a month-long series on the Sassoon family, the “Rothschilds of the East”. This is Part 1. Click here for Part 2. 

Sasson ben Saleh (1750-1830) was born in Baghdad to a wealthy Mizrachi Jewish family that had lived in what is today Iraq since the 12th century. Some say they were descended from the illustrious Sephardic ibn Shoshan family. He took the reins from his father as Baghdad’s Sarraf Bashi, or Chief Banker, at the age of 31. In this role, he was essentially the finance minister of the Iraqi Pashas, and among other things oversaw tax collection and the financing of public works projects. A very religious man, he was renowned for his righteousness and humility, and was called “Sheikh Sasson” by Jews and non-Jews alike. He used much of his fortune to assist the Jewish community and was among Iraq’s greatest philanthropists. Of his seven children, the fifth would become world-famous:

David Sassoon

David Sassoon (1792-1864) was born in Baghdad. After finishing primary school, he got married at the age of 15, and began his training to succeed his father as Baghdad’s financier. However, a new pasha took over and began persecuting the Jewish community. Many fled to Bombay, India, among them David Sassoon and his young family. Sassoon started a textile business, focusing on trade with the British Empire. The conclusion of the First Opium War in 1842 opened China to Western business, so Sassoon began expanding East. He sent his son Eliyahu (Elias) to Guangzhou, making him the first official Jewish trader in China. A couple of years later, they opened a branch of their business—David Sassoon & Co.—in Hong Kong, and then another in Shanghai, making most of their wealth from yarn, cotton, and opium. During America’s Civil War, cotton exports from the Southern states declined so Sassoon stepped in to fill the supply, making a huge fortune. Around this time, the first modern oil rigs were devised, and Sassoon immediately recognized their potential. He began investing in oil, and soon operated 17 mills in India, with as many as 20,000 workers. Like his father, Sassoon never abandoned his faith and was deeply religious. He was a generous philanthropist, too, and supported both Jewish and non-Jewish communities. In Mumbai he built a school, mechanical institute, hospital, and library, as well as the Magen David Synagogue. The massive home he built for his family is now Masina Hospital, and another home is the city’s oldest museum. In the city of Pune, he built the grand Ohel David Synagogue, in addition to a hospital free for all Indians regardless of class or caste. He single-handedly supported all the orphans of the Indian Mutiny of 1857. He was so beloved by the local Indians that they made a marble statue of him to display in the city.

Clockwise from top left: Pune Hospital, David Sassoon’s 1860 gift to the City of Pune; Masina Hospital in Mumbai today, which used to be David Sassoon’s private home; David Sassoon Library and Reading Room in Mumbai; Exterior (top) and interior (bottom) of Magen David Synagogue, built in 1864, and once housing two Jewish schools; and Ohel David Synagogue in Pune, an official Indian Heritage site and the largest synagogue in Asia, built in 1863.

The Jewish Couple That Helped Free Thousands of Slaves

Words of the Week

Fear only two: God, and the man who has no fear of God.
– Hasidic proverb

Click here for Part 2