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Jewish banker Joseph Safra, Brazil’s richest person, dies at 82

The billionaire, whose family had banking connections going back to the Ottoman Empire, was known for his philanthropy in the South American country’s Jewish community

Joseph Safra in 2002 (AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau)
Joseph Safra in 2002 (AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau)

JTA — Joseph Safra, Brazil’s wealthiest person and a philanthropist to Jewish causes in Brazil and worldwide, died Thursday in Sao Paulo at 82.

Safra died of natural causes, according to his family.

Safra was the richest banker in the world and the 39th-richest person, according to Forbes magazine, with a fortune estimated at $23.2 billion at the time of his death. He was also a leading philanthropist in Brazil’s 120,000-strong Jewish community.

Born in Lebanon, Safra ran a Brazilian banking and investment empire. His Lebanese-Syrian family’s banking connections date back to Ottoman times.

The family moved to Brazil in 1952, when Safra was 14. Three years later his older brother, Edmond, and father Jacob started working in Brazil by financing assets in Sao Paulo. Edmond later separated from brothers Joseph and Moise and headed to New York, where he founded the Republic National Bank of New York. Edmond died in a fire set by his nurse in 1999; Moise died in 2014.

Lebanese-Brazilian Jewish banker Edmond Safra (R) and his brother Joseph Safra in 1991. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

Banco Safra, the private bank that Jacob Safra opened in 1955 and Joseph Safra led until his death, reportedly is the sixth-largest private bank in Brazil. Joseph Safra became became the richest person in South America’s largest nation last year.

In 2013, Joseph Safra’s family acquired more than a dozen properties in the United States, primarily in New York City. They also own a portfolio of commercial real estate in Brazil. In 2014, Safra paid more than 700 million pounds, about $930 million, to buy The Gherkin, one of the most distinctive towers in the City of London.

He is survived by his wife, Vicky; his children Jacob, Esther, Alberto and David; and 14 grandchildren.

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