Tag Archives: New York

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.

Jews of the Week: Recha Freier & Ruchie Freier

Two Trailblazing Women

Ruchie Freier

Rachel “Ruchie” Freier (b. 1965) was born in Brooklyn to a Hasidic Jewish family. In high school, she took a course in stenography and went on to work as a legal secretary. She soon became a paralegal, and was her family’s breadwinner, supporting her husband’s full-time religious studies. At 30, she realized she was working under lawyers that were younger and less knowledgeable than she was, and made the decision to go to law school herself. Juggling school, work, and raising six kids, it took Freier ten years to earn a bachelor’s degree in political science and a law degree. She passed the bar in 2006, becoming America’s first Hasidic female lawyer. Meanwhile, Freier was heavily involved in community work, and spent time as an advocate for New York’s oft-misunderstood Hasidic Jews. In 2005, she set up a charity called Chasdei Devorah to support poor Jewish families, and in 2008 co-founded B’Derech to help troubled teens. In 2016, she was elected Civil Court Judge after a tough race. That made her the world’s first female Hasidic judge. Freier also serves on New York’s Criminal Court. Amazingly, she is a licensed paramedic, too, and works with Ezras Nashim, an all-female volunteer ambulance service (a branch of the more famous, all-male Hatzalah). The New York Times has appropriately called her a “Hasidic superwoman”. Freier has won multiple awards, and was recently ranked by the Jerusalem Post among the 50 Most Influential Jews in the World.

Recha Freier

Ruchie Freier is not to be confused with Recha Freier (1892-1984), also born to a devoutly Orthodox family, in Germany. Recha Freier experienced tremendous anti-Semitism in her youth, and this inspired her to become a Zionist. Her husband was a rabbi in Berlin, while she taught in a high school and spent the rest of her time writing. In 1932, Freier was asked to help five young men who could not get jobs because they were Jewish. Freier had the idea to send the boys to the Holy Land instead to learn farming. She raised the necessary funds and organized their voyage and settlement. Thus was born what would become the Youth Aliyah. The organization would go on to save 7000 young Jews from Nazi Germany and settle them in Israel. Freier coordinated with (former Jew of the WeekHenrietta Szold to make sure the teens were taken care of in their new home. Freier herself escaped Germany in 1940 by crossing the border to Yugoslavia. There, she saved 150 Jewish orphans. All made it safely to Israel in 1941. Two years later, Freier established the Agricultural Training Center to educate impoverished children. She was also an avid musician and pianist, and in 1958 founded the Israel Composer’s Fund. In addition to composing a number of original musical pieces, Freier wrote works of poetry and Jewish folklore. In 1981, she was awarded the Israel Prize for her contributions, the State’s highest honour.

Words of the Week

If you love life, don’t waste time, for time is what life is made up of.
– Bruce Lee

Jew of the Week: Henry Orenstein

Henry Orenstein with some of his toy inventions (Credit: Shaminder Dulai)

Henryk Orenstein (b. 1923) was born and raised in Poland. He survived five concentration camps during the Holocaust (losing both parents and two of four siblings), and settled in the US afterwards. Orenstein’s first job paid him 85 cents an hour. One day, he saw a doll being sold for a whopping $29.95, and knew he could make a better and cheaper doll. Orenstein pitched his new design – with a $9.99 price tag – mainly to grocery stores instead of department stores. The dolls quickly became a huge hit, and made him $2 million. Orenstein started his own toy company, Deluxe Reading (or Topper Toys, as it was more commonly known). The company went on to produce the famous Suzy Cute and Dawn Doll lines, as well as the hugely successful Johnny Lightning model cars, and many Sesame Street toys. Orenstein’s New Jersey factory soon employed 5000 people, all of whom admired their boss, and once talked of him running for president! By 1972, the company went out of business, but Orenstein was still inventing toys, filing patents, and pitching new ideas to larger toy companies. In the early 80s, Orenstein discovered a new, little-known Japanese toy, a transforming car, and saw the huge potential behind it. He managed to convince American toy giant Hasbro to bring these “Transformers” to the US, and the rest is history. Transformers became a worldwide phenomenon, with comic books, video games, 40 toy collections, multiple TV shows, and a series of blockbuster films (the fifth installment – The Last Knight – hits theatres this week). Year after year, Transformers are Hasbro’s best-selling toy line, and have been credited with keeping the company afloat. Meanwhile, Orenstein fell in love with the game of poker. He once sat down to watch the World Series on TV and was totally bored by it. This led him to his most famous invention: the hole-card camera. Orenstein patented a table which had cameras built in under glass panels to allow TV viewers to see the poker players’ cards. Poker officials rejected his idea, and it would take another seven years until Orenstein successfully convinced one executive to use the hole-card camera. Debuting in 2002, Orenstein’s table revolutionized the game, and much like Transformers, made poker a worldwide phenomenon. One NBC exec admitted that Orenstein is “single-handedly responsible for the success of poker today.” Orenstein has himself won over $200,000 in poker tournaments. He also produced the Poker Superstars Invitational Tournament, and the High Stakes Poker TV show. He was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 2008. All in all, Orenstein holds over 100 patents, has published two books, and is a noted philanthropist. He has donated millions of dollars to various causes, and has built subsidized housing for the poor in New York and in Israel. He has been known to personally pay rent and medical bills for thousands of people in need, including many Holocaust survivors. Now in his 90s, Orenstein still plays poker three times a week with his friends.

Words of the Week

Pessimism is a luxury that a Jew can never allow himself.
Golda Meir

Henry Orenstein (with Optimus Prime) on the cover of Newsweek