Tag Archives: Mizrahi Jews

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.

Jew of the Week: Eli Avivi

Eli Avivi (1930-2018) was born in Iran and made aliyah to the Holy Land with his family when he was just two years old. As a teenager, he joined Plugat HaYam, or Palyam, founded in 1945 as the navy arm of Palmach, the “special forces” of the pre-IDF Haganah. The primary task of Palyam was to escort and defend Jewish refugee ships coming from Europe, as well as ships containing arms for the young Jewish state. Avivi was one of seventy sailors that facilitated the arrival of 70,000 Jews to Israel over the course of 66 missions. He was also among the four hundred Palyam marines that fought in Israel’s War of Independence. Still drawn to the sea after the battles were over, Avivi became a fisherman. This took him on sailing trips around the world, and at one point he spent a year living in Greenland with the natives. Returning to Israel to visit his family in 1952, Avivi happened upon an abandoned fishing village near the Lebanese border, formerly inhabited by Arabs that had fled during the war. The young sailor settled there, making a living by selling fish to a nearby kibbutz. He eventually got married, and he and his wife continued a quiet, peaceful life mostly removed from civilization. In 1963, the Israeli government decided to turn the entire area into a national park, and sent the couple eviction notices. They battled the government until 1971, when their land was fenced in and their huts bulldozed, causing Avivi to declare independence from the State of Israel! The couple was promptly arrested. Their peaceful protests soon brought international attention, leading to an agreement with the government that resulted in the formation of the micro-state of “Akhzivland”. (The name comes from the archaeological ruins of the Biblical town of Achziv that the village was built upon.) Avivi’s success was partly owed to the support he had from David Ben-Gurion, as well as Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence agency, whom he occasionally assisted. Avivi made himself president (democratically elected by his own vote), built borders around his territory, created a flag and national anthem, wrote a constitution, and even issued passports. Although it was not recognized by any other country, Akhzivland attracted many visitors, including many celebrities. Paul Newman was known to visit, and Sophia Loren “absolutely loved it”. Young people were particularly drawn to the absolute freedom permitted in Akhzivland. In 1972, Avivi threw a music festival inspired by Woodstock, attracting so many people that there were traffic jams for 100 kilometres around. (Future music festivals were forbidden.) Avivi continued to rule his micronation until last month, when he succumbed to pneumonia. Once called the “defiant hippy king”, he was unofficially the Middle East’s longest-serving head of state, of the Middle East’s “most peaceful country”. He has left behind a national museum full of thousands of artifacts that he discovered in the archaeological ruins and on his many sea dives. His wife Rina hopes to make an agreement with Israel to create a permanent Eli Avivi/Akhzivland memorial at the site.

Words of the Week

A human being is a part of the whole, called by us “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. The striving to free oneself from this delusion is the one issue of true religion. Not to nourish it but to try to overcome it is the way to reach the attainable measure of peace of mind.
– Albert Einstein, in a 1950 letter to Robert S. Marcus

Clockwise from top left: Sophia Loren visits Akhzivland in 1966; the official borders of the microstate; Avivi by his “border crossing”; artifacts from the national museum. (Images courtesy of BBC)