Tag Archives: Sephardic 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.

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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: Camille Pissarro

The First Impressionist

Jacob Abraham Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) was born on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas to a Sephardic Jewish family of Portuguese and French ancestry. Pissarro’s father sent him to a Paris boarding school when he was 12, and it was there that he was first exposed to art, learning to paint and draw. Pissarro returned to St. Thomas at 17 to work in his father’s business, and would spend every spare moment painting. At 21, he became a professional artist and moved to Venezuela, then settled in Paris four years later. There, he apprentice under some of the great painters of the time, including Melbye and Corot. Unlike them, Pissarro wished to paint realistic scenes, and focused on capturing natural landscapes and village life. During this time he met fellow young realists like Monet and Cézanne. Soon, Pissarro was the most famous of them all, with one critic of the day describing him as being able to paint “the smell of the earth”, and another ranking him among the “three or four true painters” of the time. During the Franco-Prussian War, Pissarro lived in a village near London and experimented with a new style that would later be called Impressionism. Upon returning to France years later, Pissarro found that only 40 of his paintings survived the war out of a total 1,500 – twenty years worth of art. Frustrated by the Paris Salon that set standards in art and alone determined whose work could be exhibited, Pissarro decided to start a new art society. He recruited fifteen fellow painters to do so. The others would see him as a father figure, especially because of his long, grey beard (despite being as young as they were). He was described as having the “look of an ancestor who remained a young man”. In 1874, the new society held their first exhibit to display their new form of Impressionist art. For several years afterwards, Impressionism was a very controversial style, with critics either absolutely loving it or hating it. Pissarro would later be credited as “the first Impressionist”. Meanwhile, he became a hero for all young painters for taking a stand against the Salon. Pissarro left the Impressionist fold shorty after, and began to study under painters of the pointillist style. He would go on to fuse the two styles into Neo-Impressionism. By this point, Pissarro was seen as perhaps the most versatile painter in the world, with an “extraordinary capacity to change his art”. In 1884, he took a young Vincent van Gogh as an apprentice. Pissarro continued to paint until the last days of his life, despite a chronic eye infection that weakened his vision, and the persistent financial struggles he faced his entire life. Pissarro was known for his youthful energy, his warmth, humility, wisdom, and gracefulness. Cézanne considered him like a father, and said of Pissarro that he was “a little like the good Lord.” While his works didn’t sell so well in his own lifetime, they are among the most coveted in the world today. One of his paintings was auctioned off for a whopping £19.9 million in 2014. Four of Pissarro’s seven children became noted painters of their own, as are a number of his great-great-grandchildren today.

Words of the Week

Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked what we would do if the stars only came out once every thousand years. No one would sleep that night, of course. The world would become religious overnight. We would be ecstatic, delirious, made rapturous by the glory of God. Instead the stars come out every night, and we watch television.
– Paul Hawken

Some of Pissarro’s most famous painting, clockwise from top left: Entrée du village de Voisins (1872), La Récolte des Foins, Eragny (1887), Pont Boieldieu in Rouen, Rainy Weather (1896), Le Boulevard de Montmartre, Matinée de Printemps (1897) – which sold for £19.9 million.