top of page

As Banks Collapse, Life Lesson from a Billionaire Jewish Philanthropist

These past 72 hours have been excruciatingly difficult for many of my friends and colleagues in the banking industry. What could almost be described as a lightning strike/out of the blue, SVB Bank experienced a run on the bank and a collapse on Friday, and just yesterday evening the Federal Reserve announced the collapse of yet another bank, Signature Bank which has strong ties in the Jewish community. Ironically, just hours before Friday's collapse, analysts on CNBC and other cable news channels were exalting the virtues of investing in SVB and how safe the money would be in these investments. Financial turmoil and losing one’s life's assets, bonuses, and often hard-earned income is an incredible challenge—one that I do not envy. It upends everything that seems so stable, secure, and rooted to the ground and leaves people in a most precarious financial and emotional state.

The developments of the last three days brought me back to one of my first and few experiences with the banking industry in the United States. Just a year after I moved here from the UK in 1997, I was privileged to meet (and eventually work for, though not in banking) international financier Edmund Safra who was the then-owner of Republic Bank. We met at his opulent office on Fifth Avenue and 40th Street, on the 39th floor. I have never seen a more stunning view of New York City - not even the top of the Empire State could compare. I recall sitting and talking to him and hearing of his well-developed theories about banking, humanity, and most of all his deep emotional connection, philosophy, and commitment to charitable giving. Toward the end of our meeting, he asked one of the vice presidents of the bank to give me a tour of the building and the banking floors. We walked through the different floors, and he explained to me the different business and transactions that were taking place on each floor. In truth, many floors seemed exactly the same, with dozens of cubicles spread across a large space with people sitting at their desks on the phone or the computer, in what appeared to be a very prescribed and tight operation. When we arrived on the third floor, the Vice President explained that we were observing the mortgage department of the bank, which was a critical arm of the operation as it was conducting business. He then escorted me to the far corner of this floor, where for the first time I observed offices- unlike the cubicles of all the previous floors. He opened the door to an office with a keycard, and I was astonished by the sight. In the room were a dozen Orthodox Jews, sitting and praying, saying Tehilim, and learning Torah. It was an image almost too fantastic to believe. Right here, in the heart of Manhattan—the financial capital of the world—in one of the most successful banks in New York, Edmund Safra was employing a group of Orthodox Jews to come together on a daily basis to study Torah and engage in prayer together.

I later learned that this group of people was exceptionally important to Mr. Safra. Edmund truly believed that there was a direct link between the hand of G-d and the work of man, and that those who sat and learned Torah were of equal if not greater importance than those cutting the greatest financial deals and bringing in significant revenue for the bank. I came to understand that these gentlemen were in fact employed full-time by the Safra family and that Edmund treated each with the utmost respect and reverence. Edmund's love and respect for those learning Torah in his own bank went way beyond just their employment. Edmund made sure that their children's education was covered and was there for their families at every turn. I walked away from that day deeply inspired and motivated by the values that this wonderful human being and philanthropist was instilling in his bank and financial legacy. Yes, there is much that is in the hands of man, and the billions of dollars that run through the banking system on a daily basis are to the credit of the many brilliant minds in this field. But Edmund Safra knew and recognized that absent the blessing of G-d and without recognizing the hand of our Creator in every movement of this world he would be shortsighted in his global view and outreach. So today, as so many are worried about their financial nest-egg when friends are desperately watching for the President’s remarks and the trends on Wall Street, let us not forget the power of prayer. Even if today is gloomy and overcast, financially and otherwise, there is hope for a better tomorrow. King David says in Tehilim, "From the very depths of despair, I call upon you, my G-d." Many today with investments in these banks are reeling and find themselves with perhaps sentiments and pain as expressed by King David. But let us not forget the end of the prayer, that "my salvation comes from you, G-d, in the very darkest hour." We are all praying for stability in the markets, hoping that the investments that were made will be safe and recoverable, and most of all that our financial system will survive this crisis and go on to greater strength. To my dear friends who are hurting today, I hope that the leadership and vision of the late Edmund Safra will inspire you, to have faith, and bring calmness ensuring a better tomorrow.


bottom of page