Daniel Gross

The Jewish banker who put his faith at the heart of his business

As a new biography reveals, Edmond Safra was not just one of the most brilliant bankers ever — he was driven by Judaism

December 08, 2022 12:57

Aleph, Emunah. Beit, berakhah.”

The first letter of the Hebrew alphabet is the first word of the Hebrew word for belief or faith; the second letter is the first of the Hebrew word for blessing.

This was a phrase — among many in Hebrew, Arabic, and English — that Edmond Safra used with regularity in his lifetime. And to a large degree, he was a man of faith who was blessed.
Safra, who lived from 1932 to 1999, had an unparalleled career in banking in the second half of the 20th century. Born in 1932 in Beirut into a banking family, he went to Milan at the age of 15 and started trading gold. In his early 20s he moved the family to Brazil and instantly set up a series of successful trading operations. In the late 1950s, he started a bank in Geneva: Trade Development Bank. Republic, the US bank he founded as a start-up in 1964, grew into the 11th largest bank in America. As the stocks of his banks notched remarkable returns, he became a billionaire several times over.

Along the way, he was the protector and often the saviour of the Jewish communities and diasporas of Beirut and Aleppo, offering jobs and moral support as they strove to recreate their shattered kehillot around the world.

Safra was a child of Beirut’s Jewish quarter, Wadi Abu Jamil, and a Halabi (as Jews from Aleppo called themselves). My years of research into Safra’s life — enabled by exclusive access to his family and corporate archives, and to transcripts of interviews with hundreds of people who knew him at every stage of his life — led me to reconstruct his remarkable life story. More so than any other figure I’ve encountered, I found a remarkable connection between who Edmond Safra was as a Jew (and the particular type of Jew he was) and how he approached banking, what he saw as his purpose, and what he did with his earnings.

On his grave in the Jewish cemetery outside Geneva, one of the two Hebrew inscriptions reads: “The pious man lives by his faith” (it’s from Habbakuk). While he operated at the highest levels of finance and society, Judaism dictated the habits and routines of his life.

Safra put on tefillin most days. His license plates and phone numbers always ended in 555, the sign of the Hamsa. He preferred to conclude deals on a Tuesday, the day in Genesis when God said “and he saw that it was good” twice. I was not surprised to find that, at the groundbreaking for his glistening new headquarters in New York in the 1980s, there were two rabbis intoning blessings. Four rabbis officiated his funeral.

But his Judaism went beyond symbolism and ritual. Safra was a descendant of a Jewish family that had been in Aleppo (Aram Tzova in the Bible, home to the Great Synagogue and the Aleppo Codex) for generations. His father, Jacob, moved to Beirut in 1920. There, Edmond was born into a series of remarkably durable Jewish networks: the Halabi Jewish diaspora, the Alliance Israelite Universelle (AIU) fraternity and the networks of Jewish bankers. Jacob Rothschild, who I interviewed recently, spoke of how he knew Edmond as a young man, how his father knew Edmond’s father, and how his grandparents knew Edmond’s grandparents.
Safra was among the first to harness information technology and continuously expanded into new markets. But his level of belief, adherence to ancient ritual and commitment to the past were intense. Some might see this as a contradiction. But if you understand Halabis, who are known to acculturate but not assimilate, there is none.

His trouser pockets were specially tailored to make room for his good luck charms, and Republic was surely the only bank headquarters in the middle of Manhattan whose entryway had a small alcove for a mezuzah.

Concepts like the evil eye were very real to him. If someone spoke of someone else’s success, he was likely to say, “Hevel hevelim amar kohelet”, the first line of Ecclesiastes, “vanity of vanities” And he was always very deferential to rabbis.

The type of banking activities Edmond Safra engaged in can be traced back to the Jewish quarters of Beirut and Aleppo. He saw his first role as protecting the depositors who had entrusted their savings to him. And since, in his world, every business was a family business, ethical conduct reflected not just on him, but on his parents, his brothers, his cousins and his nephews. The “shem tov” wasn’t just a concept, it was a fundamental component of business strategy.

Members of his community referred to Safra as a Moallem — a leader, or a teacher or guide.

The connection between business success and supporting Jewish causes was there from the outset. When he was in Paris as a 16-year-old, purchasing gold, someone at the AIU headquarters helped him with residency paperwork. In response, he asked if he could donate something the institution needed. It turned out to be refrigerator equipment. In his 20s, while he was establishing himself in Brazil, Safra began sending funds to renovate the tomb of Rabbi Meir Ba’al HaNess outside Tiberias.

This, too, he regarded as his birthright. The Safras were leaders of the community in Aleppo and Beirut. And Edmond Safra effectively functioned as a one-man replacement for the community councils that had organised affairs in Aleppo and Beirut. To be a Jew in the 20th century was to know displacement — whether you were in Europe or the Middle East. Every time Syrian or Lebanese Jews were organising a synagogue in the post-war decades — in Brazil, in Panama, in Brooklyn — they came to Edmond for help. When the first synagogue in Spain since the inquisition was being constructed in the 1970s, Safra, who had no direct connection to Spanish Jewry, helped pay for it. “If I don’t give, who will?” he said.

In his archives, I continually stumbled onto reams of letters and cheque stubs, such a few hundred dollars each year so the small synagogue on Rhodes, whose community had been decimated in the Holocaust, could have a Chazzan for the High Holidays. When Hafez Assad in 1994 gave permission to the last 4,000 Jews remaining in Syria to leave, but forcing them to buy round-trip plane tickets, Safra bought them all on the spot.

While he didn’t visit Israel until the early 1980s, he forged strong friendships with Israel’s chief rabbis and political leaders. He helped rebuild the Porat Yoseph yeshiva in the Old City of Jerusalem, and funded the renovation of the square that houses Jerusalem’s municipal buildings. And in the 1990s, when Albert Einstein’s original theory of relativity came up for auction, Safra bought it and donated it to the Israel museum.

At root, however, his motivation was to protect the dignity of Jews, especially Sephardic Jews. In 1977, at a time when virtually no Sephardic students in Israel went to college, he helped found the Israel Sephardic Education Foundation, which gives scholarships. When Harvard University asked him for a donation in the late 1970s, he insisted it create a chair in Sephardic Jewish history in his father’s name. (His donations were generally in the name of his father and mother, or the Safra family. To do otherwise would be to tempt fate.)

In the years since his death in 1999, the foundation he left behind has carried on this work. If you look around the Jewish world, the Safra name is everywhere: The Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York; the Milan Holocaust Museum; the Sephardic Community Centre in Paris, synagogues all over in Israel.

Last month, I was in Tel Aviv speaking to a gathering of the current ISEF fellows, about 150 students. Safra’s foundation provides a significant chunk of the organisation’s budget. These students’ families hailed from Ethiopia, Syria, Morocco, and underrepresented communities in Israel. This, it struck me, was the embodiment of the miracle that is modern Israel — and a neat illustration of how one man’s faith in the potential of his co-religionists is accompanied by blessings.

Daniel Gross is the author of A Banker’s Journey: How Edmond J Safra Built a Global Financial Empire (Radius Book Group)

December 08, 2022 12:57

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