Tag Archives: Bankers

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

Jews of the Week: Safra Family

World’s Richest Banker

Edmond, Joseph, and Moise Safra

Jacob Safra (1891-1963) was born to a religious Sephardic family in the Jewish community of Aleppo, Syria. He was from a long line of Ottoman merchants and bankers. When the Ottoman Empire collapsed, Safra opened a new banking business in Beirut. His bank soon became the most trusted financial institution for the region’s many Jews. When things became difficult in Arab countries following the establishment of the State of Israel, Safra moved his family (with four sons and four daughters) to Italy, and then to Brazil. There, Safra and his sons founded a new bank in São Paulo in 1955. While eldest son Elie Safra (1922-1993), and third son Moise Safra (1934-2014) played smaller roles in the family business, the most prominent of the brothers was undoubtedly Edmond Safra (1932-1999). He opened a branch in Geneva, and transformed an initial $1 million into $5 billion in less than three decades. He also founded the Republic National Bank of New York, which grew to 80 locations, making it the third largest bank network in the city (after Chase and Citigroup). Edmond later opened financial institutions in Luxembourg and Russia. The latter would prove unfortunate, as many believe his “accidental” death in a house fire may have been an assassination by Russian mobsters. Today, Banco Safra is run by youngest son Joseph Safra (b. 1939). His net worth is estimated around $25 billion, making him the richest banker in the world. The Safras have always been famous for their incredible generosity. They have funded countless schools, hospitals, universities, and charities. Edmond Safra was particularly interested in building and restoring Jewish sites, and paid for synagogues all over the world, including in Manila, Istanbul, and Kinshasa. He financed the first new synagogue in Madrid in 500 years, and saved an ancient synagogue in France from demolition. He also refurbished and funded the tombs of Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochaiin Israel, and prayed at the tomb of the former each year before the holiday of Shavuot. Several medical centres and university faculties around the world bear his name, and the Safra family was one of the founders of São Paulo’s most renowned hospital. He established the International Sephardic Education Foundation to provide scholarships for those in need, and the Edmond J. Safra Philanthropic Foundation continues to give millions to charity each year. The Safras stay out of the public eye, and hold on to their faith – as well as a strictly kosher diet. Most recently, they paid for the beautiful new Moise Safra Centre in Manhattan.

15 Life Lessons from King David

Words of the Week

If you believe breaking is possible, believe fixing is possible.
– Rabbi Nachman of Breslov

In 2014, Joseph Safra purchased one of London’s most iconic buildings, the Gherkin (left), for a whopping £700 million. The Safras also own the General Motors Building in Manhattan (bottom centre), and fund (clockwise from top) the American University of Beirut, the Edmond and Lily Safra Children’s Hospital in Israel, the Edmond J. Safra Synagogue of New York, and the tomb of Rabbi Meir – a popular pilgrimage site.