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Sylvia Hassenfeld, trustee and celebrated leader, dead at 93

Published: August 23, 2014
Section: News

She was the first female president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). She oversaw the rescue of Jews and Muslims from Sarajevo and aided in the rescue of another 14,000 Ethiopian Jews. She helped raise nearly $1 billion for Brandeis University.

Her name was Sylvia Hassenfeld, and the Jewish Women’s Archive labels her as “one of the most important American Jewish communal leaders and philanthropists of the twentieth century.”

Hassenfeld passed away on Aug. 15, at the age of 93. She was a longtime Brandeis trustee who also strove to make the world a better place. She served on the Brandeis Board of Trustees from 1996-2014 and also acted as vice chair from 1998-2004. She began many scholarships, including the Sylvia Hassenfeld Scholarship, Hassenfeld Foundation Scholarship and more.

“Sylvia cared deeply about Brandeis and its students. She believed in the Brandeis mission from its founding, and I witnessed her genuine interest in our students,” said Nancy Winship, senior vice president of institutional advancement at Brandeis. Winship worked with Hassenfeld for 18 years. She refers to Hassenfeld as “a very important mentor and guide for me personally.”

In an interview with The Hoot, Winship explained even more about Hassenfeld’s deep commitment to Brandeis. “What I observed from my time with her was that her work for the University was always ‘hands-on’ … In 2008, Sylvia hosted a luncheon for scholarship donors and the student beneficiaries, and I recall how pleased she was to do this. I know that the beneficiaries of her scholarships would often write to her, and she would tell me how much she relished those letters. She loved seeing their progress. When she was on campus, she would make a point of trying to meet with students to learn how they were doing and about their lives at Brandeis. Sylvia believed firmly in providing support to students to meet their financial needs,” Winship said.

Hassenfeld’s true passion was philanthropy. In addition to her role as president of the JDC she also had leadership positions with the NYU Langone Medical Center, the United Jewish Appeal, the Jewish Agency, the Israel Museum and more. She even helped develop a children’s hospital that is set to open in 2017.

“She worked to make the organizations she served into better institutions and to aid the populations they served,” said Winship. Referring to the hospital Hassenfeld helped create, Winship said: “I think it is also fair to say that she had a special place in her heart for children. She was the driving force behind the establishment of a cancer center for children at NYU’s Langone Medical Center and a future dedicated children’s hospital there.”

Brandeis awarded Hassenfeld an honorary degree in 1998, in recognition of her philanthropy.

Hassenfeld is survived by her two children, three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Her drive and motivation inspired similar characteristics in her children, who are also dedicated to improving Brandeis. Her son Alan Hassenfeld is co-chair of the Board of Overseers of the Brandeis International Business School, while her daughter, Ellen Hassenfeld Block, is a former member of the Board of Overseers for the Heller School for Social Policy and Management.

“I have also had the benefit of seeing her as a mother: Both her son and daughter followed in her footsteps and became important leaders at Brandeis and in the world of philanthropy,” said Winship. “Like their mother, Alan and Ellen are committed leaders and never missed a Board meeting.”

Hassenfeld left a true legacy at Brandeis, and in the hearts of people she touched. “Sylvia was one of the smartest, gracious and most elegant people I have ever known, and I have always thought of her as a woman way ahead of her time. When she walked into a room, everyone would stop to take notice that she had arrived. She commanded tremendous respect, and when she spoke, everyone listened. Her passion and intelligence made people sit up and take notice,” Winship said.