Tag Archives: Oil

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.

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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: Roman Abramovich

Abramovich

Roman Abramovich

Roman Arkadyevich Abramovich (b. 1966) was born in Lithuania. His parents died before he turned four years old, so he was raised by his grandparents in the cold, remote Arctic region of Komi. Dropping out of college, Abramovich initially worked as both a mechanic and merchant, selling goods from his apartment (at one point, his main wares were rubber ducks and retreaded car tires). In 1988, he started a doll-making business with his wife, and by then had also began investing in Russian oil and gas. By 1995, natural resources were his sole focus, and he had generated a great deal of wealth. Partnering with Boris Berezovsky, the two bought the oil company Sibneft in 1995 and quickly turned it into a multi-billion dollar company. The following year, just thirty years old, he was invited to live in the Kremlin by Russian President Yeltsin. Three years later, he was elected governor of the impoverished and bankrupt province of Chukotka, where he has since contributed over $2 billion of his own money in charitable funds and investments, turning the region into one of the most flourishing in Russia, multiplying its average salary more than five-fold. Unfortunately, Abramovich has also been mired in controversy, bribery scandals, and affairs with the mafia – whom he reportedly paid hundreds of millions per year for protection. (To be fair, most businesspeople, and politicians, in post-Soviet Russia are in the same boat.) Abramovich did try to clear his name and get away from it all, restarting his life in London, and even paying his former partner Berezovsky over $1 billion in 2001 to leave him alone. As a close friend of Yeltsin, he was given the task of interviewing potential presidential candidates who would succeed Yeltsin. It is said that Abramovich was the one who first recommended Putin. Most famously, Abramovich bought the Chelsea Football Club in 2003 and quickly turned over its fortunes, soon making it the league champion for the first time in 50 years, followed by ten more titles in a decade. Abramovich also started a charity organization called the National Academy of Football, which has built over 50 soccer fields across Russia and funds sports programs for disadvantaged youth. He also contributes to Chabad, and is the chairman of Russia’s Federation of Jewish Communities. Having donated countless billions, Abramovich has the distinction of being the most generous philanthropist in Russia. Despite having lost a sizable portion of his wealth in the recent financial crisis, he is still the 12th richest person in Russia, and 137th in the world. The father of seven children has been awarded the Order of Honour and was Russia’s Person of the Year in 2003. Earlier this week, he bought his first property in Israel, spending $25 million on a historic hotel in Tel-Aviv, which he will be converting into his private residence.

Words of the Week

Try not to become a man of success. Rather, become a man of value.
– Albert Einstein