Tag Archives: Russia

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: Maurice Druon and Joseph Kessel

Game of Thrones

Kessel

Joseph Kessel

Joseph Kessel (1898-1979) was born in Argentina to a Jewish-Russian family, the son of a doctor from Lithuania. He spent his early childhood in Russia before the family moved to France. Kessel became a pilot and a writer. In the former capacity, he served valiantly in both World Wars, and in the latter, wrote over 20 novels. Many of his novels were translated into a number of languages, and were later adapted into very popular French films. Today, the Prix Joseph-Kessel is among the top literary prizes awarded for French literature. Maurice Druon (1918-2009) was Kessel’s nephew. (He went by his stepfather’s last name). He was born in Paris and raised in Normandy. Like his uncle, Druon became a writer as well. His career was interrupted by World War II, when he fought with the French Resistance, and together with his uncle, wrote the well-known anthem of the Resistance (based on an earlier Russian song).

Druon

Maurice Druon

Following the war, Druon wrote Les Grandes Familles, a bestseller adapted to an equally popular film. Druon would write two sequels to this novel, together with dozens of other important literary works. Among those is the seven-volume Les Rois Maudits (The Accursed Kings). This series was adapted to a TV show in 1972, and again in 2005. It also served as the foundation and inspiration for George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, which was adapted to the current hit show Game of Thrones. In addition to his writing, Druon was France’s Minister of Cultural Affairs in the 1970s. Both he and his uncle Joseph Kessel were lifelong members of the prestigious ‘Académie française’.

Words of the Week

No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.
Albert Einstein

Jew of the Week: Waldemar Haffkine

“Saviour of Humanity”Haffkine

Vladimir Mordechai Aaronovich Chavkin (1860-1930) was born to a Jewish-Russian family in what is now Ukraine. As a young man, he was a member of the Jewish League for Self-Defense, a group that protected Jews during pogroms. In one such event, he was injured and arrested. His teacher Elie Metchnikoff, the “father of immunology” (and former Jew of the Week), helped to have him freed from prison. Metchnikoff was soon forced to flee to Paris, and Chavkin joined him there some time later. For a time, the two worked together with Louis Pasteur. Chavkin (by this point going by Waldemar Wolff Haffkine) initially focused on the study of protist species before moving over to bacteria. Following major outbreaks of cholera, he was determined to find a vaccine, and experimented on himself to do so. Although he was succesful, his work was not accepted in Europe, so Haffkine went to India. There, he vaccinated 55,000 people while surviving both malaria and an assassination attempt by Muslim extremists. India then suffered a deadly outbreak of bubonic plague, so the government asked Haffkine for help. He worked tirelessly for three months (during which time all of his assistants quit), again experimenting on himself, and developed a working vaccine. By the end of the century, Haffkine’s vaccines were given to over four million people in India. Europeans finally took notice. When Russia had a cholera outbreak shortly after, Haffkine’s vaccine saved thousands of lives. By this point, he had been knighted by the Queen of England, and described by Lord Joseph Lister as a “saviour of humanity”. Throughout his career, Haffkine had to battle anti-Semitism, and persistent attempts at converting him to Christianity. In the last decades of his life, he became deeply religious and committed to Orthodox Judaism, even writing a treatise called A Plea for Orthodoxy, and establishing the Haffkine Foundation to spread traditional Jewish teachings, especially among so-called “enlightened” Jews. Haffkine was also a staunch Zionist, formulating his own plan to establish a Jewish state in the Holy Land, and negotiating with the Ottoman Empire to do so. Unfortunately, his plans were rejected. Nonetheless, Haffkine is immortalized in history as the inventor of the cholera and bubonic plague vaccines, and a man who saved countless lives around the world.

Words of the Week

Few men are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world which yields most painfully to change.
– Robert F. Kennedy