New York’s Sephardic community was reeling this week as it began coming to grips with the bizarre death of its "king," the revered Lebanese-born billionaire philanthropist and financier Edmond Jacob Safra.
Devastated community leaders said the loss of the 67-year-old founder of the Republic National Bank of New York is an incalculable setback for the dozens of Sephardic synagogues, schools and charities in New York, Israel and around the world that benefited from Safra’s seemingly bottomless store of generosity and discreet wisdom.
"The Sephardic world has lost its crown," pronounced Clement Sofer, a leader in the Egyptian and Syrian community. "He was like a wonderful king. He just helped the people without asking anything back. I don’t think on this planet we have somebody else to take over his shoes."
Safra, one of the world’s richest men, suffocated in the locked bathroom of his fortified Monaco penthouse last Friday morning during a fire set by his male nurse, former upstate resident Ted Maher. Maher told authorities he set the blaze so he could rescue Safra and be a hero.
Safra, a secretive and superstitious man obsessed with security, died when he refused to listen to wife Lily, who told him by cell phone that it was safe to leave the lavish apartment, according to Monaco authorities (see accompanying story). The apartment reportedly was fortified by thick metal doors and roofs and bulletproof windows.
Safra, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease, was buried near Geneva on Monday in a funeral attended by 700 mourners. Many had expected him to be buried in Jerusalem.
Some Sephardic leaders this week expressed anxiety over the potential loss of jobs for Sephardim as a result of Safra selling his Republic Bank in a $9.9 billion deal about to be concluded with British financial giant HSBC Holdings.
"He employed many people" in the Syrian Jewish community, said one Brooklyn Sephardic community official. "Now that the bank is being sold, many of these people will lose their jobs."
Others bemoaned the loss of Safra’s vaunted contributions to an array of Sephardic religious and educational projects and institutions.
"[His death] will have a tremendous effect," said Rabbi Moshe Shamah of Brooklyn’s Sephardic Synagogue. "Practically every institution opened in the Middle Eastern Jewish community would think first about how they can count on Safra. Now we don’t have that person to think about."
Some expressed concern about whether Lily Safra, an Ashkenazic Brazilian woman, would continue the same level of support. "We fear that his wife has different priorities," said one Sephardic leader.
But the anxiety and sense of loss was mixed with glowing tributes and fond memories of Safra, described as a down-to-earth, pleasant, moderate and religious man whose good deeds extended globally to Jews of all stripes.
Old friends and acquaintances poignantly recalled stories about Safra speedily pledging to help fund new Sephardic synagogues in Baltimore and North Miami Beach, Fla., or donate money to one of his favorite causes, the Israeli Sephardic Educational Foundation, to help underprivileged Israeli Sephardic students get a college degree.
"There are more than 10,000 students he helped who never met him," said ISEF founder Nina Wiener in a phone interview from Geneva. "This whole situation is very tragic. Everyone is stunned."
"I would venture to say that there is not a Jewish community in this world that has not been touched by Edmond Safra’s kindness," said Alice Sardell Harary, former Republic Bank vice president and president of the Council for the Rescue of Syrian Jews.
Quantifying all the money Safra gave to Jewish causes is nearly impossible."None of us know how much he did anonymously," said Wiener.
"He had a nephew sitting down for the last 25 years whose job, full time, is to write checks for donations to all kinds of people," said a man who described himself as one of Safra’s oldest friends from the Brooklyn community.
A walk down Brooklyn’s tree-lined Ocean Parkway would reveal a dozen shuls and schools that Safra helped launch or renovate. Sofer recalled that Safra helped him start the Egyptian Congregation Ahava Ve Ahava 25 years ago with a $100,000 loan. Last year Safra gave Sofer $1 million for a new Sephardic synagogue in Turnberry, North Miami Beach, a Sephardic winter haven.
But Safra’s generosity wasn’t limited to Brooklyn’s community. Mark Mishan, co-chairman of the International Restitution Committee for Jews from Arab Lands, said that after praying once or twice in a Sephardic minyan in Baltimore, Safra pledged $125,000 to buy them a building. "These are the kinds of things nobody knows about," Mishan said.
"He was one of the biggest philanthropists for Israel," said another old Safra friend. "He helped support the [Western] Wall, the Cave [of the patriarchs]" in Hebron. "He supported the yeshiva of Rabbi [Ovadiah] Yosef," the former Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel.
Safra’s influence was also seen in international affairs. When the Syrian government demanded that its Jewish citizens purchase round-trip tickets to prevent them from fleeing, Safra gave $3 million in 1991 to help 3,500 Syrian Jews leave permanently, Sofer said.When the head of Moscow’s Jewish community was kidnapped several years ago, Safra provided much of the ransom money, he added.
"On a moment’s notice he issued a check for $30,000," Sofer said. "He was a very secretive person who liked to do good things for ‘Am Yisroel.’ "
Safra’s impact on the Sephardic community’s economic life since opening Republic Bank in a new tower on Fifth Avenue in Midtown is also hard to quantify.
"He should be called one of the greatest bankers we ever had; he overshadowed the Rothschilds," said Sephardic business associate. "The man was a hero in all the Syrians’ minds. He employed a lot of people from the [Sephardic] community, and a lot of people made a living from jobs filtering down from his business."
"He uplifted the Sephardic communities to show we do have strength, money and power," Sofer said."No question he showed a preference to Sephardic people," said Leon Levy, president of the American Sephardi Foundation. Levy’s company helped build Republic headquarters, where Safra installed a kosher kitchen and had mezuzahs placed on all the doors.
A member of the Sephardic Minyan at Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue Synagogue, where Safra prayed when he was in New York (he also had homes in Monaco, Paris and Geneva) noted that Safra’s donations had an incredible ripple effect throughout the Sephardic world.
"He caused so many businessmen to donate money to build shuls because they knew that if they got far behind and ran out of funds, Safra would pick up the project," said the fellow worshiper.
Levy said Safra, whose name means "yellow" in Arabic, was "a quiet fellow, unassuming, not the kind of person you would expect to create the wealth that he did."
Rabbi Shamah of the Sephardic Synagogue recalled watching Safra kindly listen when people would approach him, perhaps inappropriately, during weddings and bar mitzvahs, asking for his financial help.
"He stayed so pleasant with them," the rabbi recalled. "I was impressed by the fact that Edmond didn’t tell them this was not the time or place."
In the old days, Safra "was a very big joker: he makes you laugh with tears," said a longtime friend.
Safra was also superstitious: "very much," said a childhood friend. He was known to carry small blue gems in his pocket to ward off the evil eye. His lucky number, 5, was on his car license plate, EJS555. He always carried a Book of Psalms. He regularly wore a three piece navy blue suit and a dark polka dot tie.
The friend explained that Safra made donations in his father’s name "to protect himself."
More recently, as Safra became ill, he grew more isolated and frightened, the friend said. "He was scared about his life. He led a very isolated life."
Marrying the widowed Lily late in life, Safra had no children of his own. The old friend, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he didn’t think Safra was on good terms recently with his brothers, Moise and Joseph, in Brazil. "There seems to be some kind of family conflict."
Safra never had a college education, but he established the Jacob E. Safra Institute for Sephardic Studies at Yeshiva University, an international-banking chair at the Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania and the Robert Kennedy Chair of Latin American Studies at Harvard University.
Born in Lebanon on Aug. 6, 1932, after his parents left the Syrian city of Aleppo, Safra joined the family banking business at 16. The family moved to Sao Paulo, Brazil, in 1952. Edmond moved to Geneva four years later and entered the Swiss private banking market, catering to rich clients. He moved to the United States in the early 1960s.
Despite shunning publicity, he became controversial in 1983 when American Express waged a campaign against him after Safra sold them his Trade Development Bank. Safra fought back and American Express was forced to apologize and donate $8 million to Safra’s favorite charities. During that time he was also accused of orchestrating the Iran-Contra scandal.
Despite preparing to retire soon, Safra was making headlines again. He suffered heavy losses in the Russian market collapse. Republic blew the whistle on irregular transactions from the Bank of New York allegedly involving the Russian mafia, which has led to the largest federal bank investigation in history. That prompted speculation that the Russian mafia targeted him for revenge.
And the sale of Republic was threatened after charges of fraud of Japanese investors were leveled against a Republic customer. To save the deal, Safra agreed to reduce his own profit by nearly $400 million.
With the imminent sale of Republic, some in the Sephardic community were already preparing for the end of their golden age. Staff writer Lawrence Cohler-Esses contributed to this report.