Joseph Safra, Major Jewish Philanthropist & Prominent Brazilian Banker Dies at 82

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Joseph Safra, the Lebanese-Brazilian financier who dedicated his entire life to philanthropic endeavors has sadly passed away at age 82. Photographer: Lionel Cironneau/AP Photos

Edited by: Fern Sidman

Joseph Safra, the Lebanese-Brazilian financier who dedicated his entire life to philanthropic endeavors has sadly passed away at age 82. Considered to be not only the richest man in Brazil, Safra was also the wealthiest banker in the world. According to a statement issued by Banco Safra, the cause of death was attributed to natural causes.

Reuters reported that as a member of Brazil’s most prominent Jewish business clan, Safra was credited with making Banco Safra one of Brazil’s soundest banks. He was deeply involved in Jewish community affairs in Brazil, spending a great deal of his time and fortune funding health, education and charity projects and paying for the construction of synagogues and community centers.

In August of 2020, Forbes reported Safra’s estimated net worth at $22.8 billion.

According to a 2012 Business Insider report in 2011, Safra bought Bank Sarasin, a private bank in Switzerland, from Rabobank of the Netherlands, for $1.1 billion. He also bought office space in Manhattan’s 660 Madison Avenue building for $285 million.

Wikipedia reported that Joseph Yacoub Safra was born in Beirut, Lebanon in 1938 to a Sephardic Jewish family with banking connections in Aleppo, Syria dating back to Ottoman times, and grew up in Beirut. The family’s history in banking originated with caravan trade between Aleppo, Beirut, Alexandria, and Istanbul during the Ottoman Empire, as was reported by Wikipedia.

Bloomberg News reported that Safra’s great-uncle, Ezra, started the family business, and Jacob Safra expanded to Lebanon, before the family moved to Brazil after World War II; in 1952.

Wikipedia reported that in 1955, Joseph’s 23-year-old brother, Edmond Safra, and his father, Jacob Safra, started working in Brazil by financing assets in São Paulo. But soon, Edmond Safra separated from his brothers Joseph and Moise and headed to New York where he founded the Republic National Bank of New York (which he later sold to HSBC in 1999 and donated most of his money to the Edmond Safra Foundation). He died eight years later from complications linked to Parkinson’s disease. Joseph Safra founded Banco Safra in 1955 and today it is reportedly the 6th largest private bank in Brazil. He remained the chairman of the Safra Group offering banking services throughout Europe, North and South America until his death, as was reported by Wikipedia.

Fluent in Arabic, English and four other languages, Joseph Safra acquired the remaining shares of Safra Group companies from his brother Moise Safra, as was reported by Wikipedia. The two brothers maintain a shareholding in Fibria Cellulose.

According to a Reuters report, Safra helped in operating and expanding his family’s private-banking and wealth management empire, often catering to an affluent clientele from São Paulo to New York and Monte Carlo.

Reuters reported that the Safras stood out among a number of Brazilian families whose businesses grew transnational, yet remained loyal to their ethnic roots. While banking was the axis of his activities, Safra also sought to diversify his wealth by investing in paper and pulp, global real estate, telecoms and cattle ranching, according to Reuters.

He seldom granted interviews, saying he avoided speaking Portuguese in public for fear of “being misunderstood.” However, his efforts to keep a low profile were punctuated by ruthless boardroom battles, even with members of his own family, as was reported by Reuters.

“Every bank is like a child –- you have to nurture it so it is able to grow and thrive,“ Joseph Safra said in a Safra Sarasin earnings report released in 2020, according to a report on Bloomberg News.

Reuters reported that the Safras were also known in Brazil for their obsession with personal security. Edmond, Joseph’s older brother and one of the most prominent private bankers of the past century, died in 1999 in an arson attack on his Monte Carlo penthouse that shocked the banking world.

Joseph Safra will be remembered for his active philanthropy, Shliach Rabbi Yossi Schildkraut said in an interview with the Reuters news service.

Both Joseph and Moise funded the construction of the largest synagogue in Brazil, an ornate structure serving Sao Paulo’s Sephardic Jews, and the restoration of the country’s first synagogue, in the northeastern city of Recife, according to the Reuters report.

“He was always ready to help, even if that didn’t mean being around to discuss the day-to-day events,” Schildkraut said in an interview years ago. “His devotion to the preservation of the Jewish traditions in Brazil is priceless.”

Bloomberg News reported that in Sao Paulo, the Albert Einstein and Sirio-Libanes hospitals counted Safra as a key donor. In addition to building synagogues, Safra contributed to Jewish causes through the Joseph Safra Foundation, and donated Auguste Rodin sculptures to a Brazilian museum, as was reported by Bloomberg News.

Safra had been battling with illness for some time and his three sons — Jacob, David and Alberto — were gradually taking on larger roles within the business, according to the Bloomberg News report. In 2019, Alberto decided to split from the lender to launch his own venture, ASA Investments. Now, Jacob, the oldest, runs the international side of the operations, while David oversees the Brazilian firm.

Bloomberg News reported that at the time of his death, the billionaire’s extensive holdings included a stake in banana company Chiquita Brands International, the Gherkin, a Norman Foster-designed skyscraper in central London and a 130-room mansion in Sao Paulo.

Joseph Safra is survived by his wife Vicky, his four children and fourteen grandsons. May his memory be for a blessing.