Colleagues remember Board member and philanthropist
Board of Trustees member Sylvia Hassenfeld passed on Aug. 15 in Manhattan at the age of 93. Hassenfeld served on the board from 1996 to 2014, including six years as vice chair. Hassenfeld was born in Pennsylvania, graduated from Cedar Crest College with a bachelor’s degree in 1944 and married Merrill Hassenfeld. She is survived by her two children, Alan Hassenfeld and Ellen Hassenfeld Block, as well as three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
According to an Aug. 17 BrandeisNOW article, she was also an “honorary executive chair of the Campaign for Brandeis, which raised nearly one billion dollars for the university,” and her family supported many other campaigns, including the Hassenfeld Foundation Scholarship.
Hassenfeld is known especially for her support of students in the Myra Kraft Transitional Year Program, students from developing countries and “unbiased scholarship of the Middle East” through establishing the Sylvia K. Hassenfeld Chair in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies, Senior Vice President of Institutional Advancement Nancy Winship explained in an email to the Justice.
In the BrandeisNOW article, University President Frederick Lawrence described Hassenfeld as a “remarkable woman who dedicated her life to improving the human condition by protecting the rights of all and promoting religious freedom,” whose contribution to Brandeis is immeasurable. Hassenfeld’s dedication to Brandeis extends across her family tree, starting with her father-in-law, Henry, the founder of toy and board game company Hasbro, Inc. Henry Hassenfeld first donated to Brandeis in 1950 at the very beginning of Brandeis’ initial Master Planning Project to expand the University’s infrastructure.
Today, Hassenfeld’s children, Alan and Ellen, remain involved with the University. In an email to the Justice, Winship explained that Alan serves as a co-chair of the Board of Overseers at the Brandeis International Business School. He also initiated the Hassenfeld Emerging Markets Business Immersion Program at IBS, which takes students on immersive trips to emerging markets, most recently Cuba. Ellen previously served on the Board of Overseers at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management, having also established a fellowship to support Heller students. Winship describes both as dependable leaders who are a reliable source of support to the continuing success of Brandeis.
According to Winship, Hassenfeld will be “remembered for her willingness to use her extensive network of international contacts to help the university” and as someone to whom people could not say “no” when she asked them for support. Winship also describes Hassenfeld as a leader in the University’s fundraising efforts, directly impacting the lives of many students, especially those benefitting from her scholarship programs. “Those students who benefited directly from her scholarship support will remember Sylvia for taking the time to get to know them personally and being genuinely interested in their endeavors,” explained Winship.
Aside from her work at Brandeis, Hassenfeld also had “leadership positions with the New York University Langone Medical Center, the United Jewish Appeal, the Jewish Agency, the Israel Museum, the Jerusalem Foundation, the Hasbro Children’s Foundation,” among many others, according to BrandeisNOW. Winship added that Hassenfeld, through her extensive funding raising efforts and personal donation, was “the driving force behind the Hassenfeld Children’s Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at NYU Langone Medical Center,” which will open in 2017.
Hassenfeld also served as the first female president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a relief organization that helps persecuted Jews, from 1988 to 1992. During her time at the JDC, Hassenfeld “established the International Development Program, which supports non-sectarian aid in times of crisis,” wrote Winship.
Hassenfeld’s work also included negotiating the resettlement of Soviet Jews, assisting Romanian and Hungarian Jews, rescuing Jews and Muslims from Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzeovina as well as the “1991 airlift to Israel of 14,000 Jews from war-torn Ethiopia,” according to Winship.
The honors Hassenfeld received include being named an honorary citizen of Jerusalem, the Emma Lazarus Statue of Liberty Award and serving on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. Winship explained that she will “remember Sylvia as a woman ahead of her time, with an endless reserve of energy and compassion.”
In an email to the Justice, fellow Board of Trustees member Martin Gross ’72 described Hassenfeld, who he worked closely with: “I knew Sylvia for over 10 years and worked closely with her on The Board of Trustees. She was a truly remarkable woman. Being her friend was a real privilege. She was highly intelligent, soft spoken, deeply committed to the various institutions she served, and always the charming classy lady who led by example. She was a great lady and I will forever miss her.”