Lily Safra, one of the world’s most renowned Jewish philanthropists, died on Saturday in Geneva. The Brazilian billionaire was 87 years old and, according to a statement, she died surrounded by her family and friends.
Lily Safra is survived by her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Her husband Edmund J Safra died in 1999. He was the last of Safra’s 3 husbands. After two short marriages, it was three times a charm as her last one lasted for more than twenty years.
Forbes estimated Lily Safra’s wealth at about $1.3 billion.
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According to the Edmund J Safra Organization, Mrs. Lily Safra shared her commitment to caring for the less fortunate with her husband, Mr. Edmond J. Safra, one of the twentieth century’s most accomplished bankers and founder of the Edmond J. Safra Philanthropic Foundation. She chaired the Foundation for over 20 years, supporting projects related to education, science and medicine, religion, culture, and humanitarian relief in over 40 countries.
“Like her philanthropy, Mrs. Safra’s life was dynamic and global. She spoke six languages and made her home at different times in seven countries. She was known for her elegance, independence, generosity, and eye for detail.”
The organization added that her devotion to her friends inspired the same in return. Sir Elton John once remarked, “When Lily asks you to do something, you do it.”
Lily Safra was born Lily Watkins on 20 December 1934 in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Her parents were Jewish immigrants to South America—Wolf Watkins, an engineer of Czech and British origins who had prospered in Brazil and Uruguay, and Annita Noudelman, whose family fled pogroms in Odessa for the safety of Brazil. Lily’s father manufactured railroad cars, with a factory in the city of Mesquita (near Rio de Janeiro), where the main street was named “Rua Mister Watkins” in his honor.
Mrs. Safra initiated many educational projects in memory of her husband, including endowing the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University. Lily Safra was Honorary Chairman of the Israel Scholarship Education Foundation (ISEF), which she established with her husband in 1977, and which has become the largest non-profit organization promoting higher education for gifted Israelis from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Lily Safra also funded numerous efforts worldwide helping teachers impart the lessons of the Holocaust and the values of tolerance and courage to their students, remarking: “It is only through education that we can hope to prevent future generations from repeating the tragedies of the past.”
Mrs. Safra was also a patron of museums around the world, notably the Courtauld Institute in London and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, home to the Edmond and Lily Safra Fine Arts Wing. She established the Edmond J. Safra Visiting Professorship at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.
Lily Safra pursued her husband’s support of Jewish religious life around the world, building and sustaining dozens of synagogues and schools in his memory. In particular, she devoted herself to the construction of the Edmond J. Safra Synagogue of Manhattan and the Synagogue Edmond J. Safra of Monaco. She also took a leading role in the reconstruction and renovation of the magnificent Edmond J. Safra Synagogue of St. Petersburg, built in the late 19th century as the Grand Choral Synagogue.