Tag Archives: Charity

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.

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.

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Words of the Week

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

Jew of the Week: Larry Tanenbaum

Owner of the Toronto Raptors and Maple Leafs

Lawrence M. Tanenbaum (b. 1945) was born in Toronto, the grandson of religious Polish-Jewish immigrants. His father was a real estate tycoon and the founder and owner of York Steel Construction. Tanenbaum studied economics at Cornell University, where he managed the school’s hockey team. Upon graduating, he became the general manager of Kilmer Van Nostrand, a construction company that his father had recently bought out. Tanenbaum expanded the company rapidly. Among their many projects across the Americas are the Toronto, Atlanta, Miami, and Calgary train and subway networks. After a merger with another company in 1984, Tanenbaum became the CEO of Canada’s largest road paving company. Meanwhile, he created two new subdivisions for Kilmer: its Developments wing which is a leading Canadian real estate firm, and Kilmer Sports, for which Tanenbaum is most famous. Kilmer Sports has a 25% share of Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment Ltd., and Tanenbaum is the chairman of both the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team and the Toronto Raptors basketball team. The former is among the most valuable sports clubs in the world, while the latter won the NBA Championship last week for the first time in its history. In fact, Tanenbaum played an instrumental role in bringing a professional basketball team to Toronto. Although he lobbied the NBA for years, the contract was ultimately awarded to another businessman. Undeterred, Tanenbaum vowed to buy it out, and did so in 1998 with the team having struggled tremendously in its first years. Tanenbaum quickly turned its fortunes around (together with Vince Carter, who was drafted that same year.) Tanenbaum is a big sports fan himself, and goes to as many Leafs and Raptors games as he can. MLSE also owns the Toronto Argonauts, Toronto FC, and two more teams, making it Canada’s largest sports company, and one of the largest in the world. Last year, Tanenbaum (with a partner) bought the rights to bottle and distribute Coca-Cola in Canada. Tanenbaum and his family are huge philanthropists, donating countless millions to schools, hospitals, and charities. Among his largest donations are $60 million to Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital, $20 million to Montreal’s Neurological Institute and Hospital, $5 million to the University of Toronto, and $50 million to the UJA. He is a co-founder of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs. Tanenbaum was awarded the Order of Canada in 2007. He plans to take the Toronto Raptors on an all-expenses paid trip to Israel as a victory present.

Words of the Week

Five thousand years of continuous history of the Jewish people have built an ethic. And the ethic has been built around family, the importance of learning and good behaviour. You build on those tenets. You never stop learning, whether that’s reading the Bible, the Talmud, the New Yorker or Engineering News Record. And ethical behaviour is about conducting your relationships on an ethical basis. You’re honest with people.

– Larry Tanenbaum