Billionaire killed in fire was true Sephardi benefactor

NEW YORK — Edmond Jacob Safra, the billionaire banker who died last Friday in his Monaco penthouse in a fire set by one of his nurses, used his wealth to aid Sephardi Jews across the world.

Safra, who was 67, suffered from Parkinson's disease. He was due to retire once he concluded the $9.9 billion sale of his Republic National Bank of New York to British financial giant HSBC Holdings.

"He was a lovely, generous person who did everything in a modest way," said Nina Weiner, a Sephardi leader in the United Status and head of the International Sephardi Education Foundation, of which Safra was a primary benefactor.

The foundation was created in 1977 to help poor Israeli Sephardim get a university education.

"Thanks to him, over 22,000 got their degrees," Weiner said.

"He was devoted to Jewish life in the world," said Leon Levy, president of the American Sephardi Federation. "You can go to places as far as the isle of Rhodes and see that the restored ancient synagogue bears the name of his parents.

"He was a true Sephardi in the sense of believing in tolerance or moderation," Levy added.

At first, authorities reported that two intruders had set the fire. But a nurse, Ted Maher, admitted to police over the weekend that he set the fire and fabricated the story about the intruders. Maher apparently was jealous of Safra's other nurses. In claiming to have battled the intruders, authorities said, Maher allegedly expected to win Safra's approval. He did not intend to kill anyone.

One of Safra's other nurses, Vivienne Torrent, also died in the fire after Safra and she barricaded themselves in a bathroom.

Although he lacked a formal education, Safra was a member of the International Advisory Committee at Harvard University, where he established the Robert Kennedy Chair of Latin American studies and the Jacob E. Safra chair of Sephardic history. He also established an international-banking chair at the Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania.

In addition to synagogues, hospitals and educational programs, Safra's largesse included the New York Holocaust Museum and the Jacob E. Safra Institute for Sephardic Studies at Yeshiva University in Manhattan. In 1996, he donated Albert Einstein's earliest manuscript on the Theory of Relativity to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem through the Jacob Safra Foundation. A friend of Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the Safra family is believed to be a benefactor of Shas schools.

Safra's brothers, Moise and Joseph, have made substantial investments in Israel over the years, chiefly their controlling stake in the First International Bank and a 34.75 percent stake in the country's No. 2 cellular phone operator, Cellcom.

With a personal fortune of some $2.5 billion, Safra ranked 199th on Forbes's most recent list of the world's richest people.

He once attributed his banking success to "security, seriousness, hard work, careful lending, controlling expenses."

Safra was born in Beirut on Aug. 6, 1932. He was 16 when he joined the family banking business that had originated with caravan trade between Aleppo, Alexandria and Constantinople during the Ottoman Empire.

According to news accounts, he began working in precious metals and foreign-exchange activities in the post-war revival of international commerce.

In the dangerous climate after the creation of Israel, Safra's father, Jacob, moved the family to Sao Paulo in 1952. The family's Brazilian bank, Banco Safra SA, is managed by his two brothers.

Edmond Safra moved to Geneva in 1956 and entered the Swiss private banking market.

He founded the Republic National Bank in 1966 in a townhouse on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Republic's business came from international private banking, as well as trading in precious metals and securities. Republic is the 16th largest bank holding company in the United States.

His primary home was in Geneva, but he also had homes in Paris, New York and the penthouse in Monaco, where he died.

He is survived by his wife, Lily, who was unharmed in last Friday's fire, and her two children, Adriana and Eduardo. Other survivors are his brothers, and sisters Arlette Friedler of Belgium and Gaby Safra and Huguette Michaan of Brazil.