Tag Archives: Philanthropists

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

Jews of the Week: Amy Alcott and Laetitia Beck

Two Great Women in Golf

Amy Alcott (Credit: World Golf Hall of Fame)

Amy Alcott (b. 1956) was born in Kansas City, Missouri. She played golf for the first time when she was nine years old, and the golf club was so impressed they give her special access to their facilities. At age 18, Alcott decided to skip college and become a professional golfer. She joined the LPGA and won her first tournament shortly after, as well as the Rookie of the Year award. Alcott went on to win a whopping 29 LPGA tour championships, 5 of them majors. In 1983 she became only the sixth golfer ever to make a million dollars in winnings. Alcott donated much of those earnings, and was awarded the Founders Cup three years later for her philanthropic work. In 1986, she became the third golfer ever to make two million dollars. She was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1999, as well as to the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. Since retiring from professional play, Alcott has turned to coaching girls golf, painting, and designing golf courses. Perhaps her most famous work is designing the golf course at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.

Laetitia Beck

Playing on that course and representing Israel in golf for the first time was Laetitia Beck (b. 1992). Beck was born in Belgium to a religious Jewish family which made aliyah to Israel when she was six years old. The family settled in Caesarea, near Israel’s only full golf course. Like Alcott, Beck first played golf at age 9. At just 12, she was the ladies champion at the Israel Open, and won again the following year. She then moved to the US for better opportunities and tougher competition. At 18, she returned to Israel and enlisted in the IDF. However, after completing all her exams she was given an exemption from service under the category of being a “sports prodigy”. She joined the LPGA Tour and became the first Israeli ever to do so. Beck always sports an Israeli flag somewhere on her uniform, and has said that “My goal is to represent Israel and the Jewish people.” She has done this extremely well, as she always keeps a kosher diet wherever in the world she plays, and never performs on Jewish holidays. When she declined an invitation to a golf tournament in October 2011 because it conflicted with Yom Kippur, she was compared to Sandy Koufax, who famously missed a game of the 1965 World Series for the same reason. Meanwhile, Beck earned an undergraduate degree from Duke University in 2014, where she had played for the school’s golf team, the Blue Devils. So far, Beck has won two golds at the Maccabiah Games, and five Israeli Opens (with the most recent ones played in the men’s division), as well as a Rookie of the Year award, and two appearances on the All-American golf team. She is teeing off tomorrow morning at the Thornberry Creek LPGA Classic.

Words of the Week

The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals; and our Holy of Holies is a shrine that neither the Romans nor the Germans were able to burn…
– Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel