Brandeis mourns passing of longtime Trustee Sylvia Hassenfeld, H'98
By David E. Nathan
Longtime Brandeis Trustee Sylvia Hassenfeld, H’98, a renowned human rights advocate who led her family’s generous multi-generational support of the university, died on Aug. 15. The resident of Palm Beach, Fla., was 93.
Sylvia served as the first woman president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and led the Hassenfeld Foundation, which supported Jewish causes, medical centers, the arts and educational institutions around the world. In 1998, she received an honorary doctor of humane letters from Brandeis in recognition of her leadership, activism and philanthropy.
“Sylvia Hassenfeld was a remarkable woman who dedicated her life to improving the human condition by protecting the rights of all and promoting religious freedom,” Brandeis President Frederick M. Lawrence said. “Sylvia and her family generously supported Brandeis, and she was a tireless advocate on behalf of the university. Her impact on the world and on this campus cannot be measured.”
The Hassenfeld family’s deep connection to Brandeis goes back to 1950, when Sylvia’s father-in-law, Henry, co-founder of the Hasbro toy company in Rhode Island, made a gift to the university. Her husband, Merrill, and son Stephen each served as Hasbro chief executive officer before their deaths.
At Brandeis, Sylvia served on the Board of Trustees from 1996-2014 (vice chair from 1998-2004) and was honorary executive chair of the Campaign for Brandeis, which raised nearly $1 billion for the university. She and her family funded a number of important initiatives at Brandeis, including the Sylvia Hassenfeld Scholarship, the Sylvia K. Hassenfeld Chair in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies, and the Hassenfeld Foundation Scholarship.
Two of her children, Alan Hassenfeld and Ellen Hassenfeld Block, have continued the family’s involvement with Brandeis. Alan, retired CEO of Hasbro, is co-chair of the Board of Overseers of the Brandeis International Business School (IBS) and established the Hassenfeld Emerging Markets Business Immersion Program at IBS. Ellen is a former member of the Board of Overseers at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management and created a fellowship to support students.
“Sylvia loved Brandeis and passed on her affection for the university to her children,” said Nancy Winship, P’10, P’13, senior vice president of institutional advancement, who worked closely with Sylvia for two decades. “She truly had a profound influence on Brandeis. Not only was she a generous supporter of Brandeis, she was always willing to use her extensive network of international contacts to help the university.”
Described by one biographer as “one of the most significant leaders in the American Jewish community of the 20th century,” Sylvia was born in Pennsylvania and earned her bachelor’s degree from Cedar Crest College in 1944. While serving as president of the JDC from 1988-92, she established the International Development Program to provide non-sectarian aid in times of crisis. Under her leadership, JDC also returned to the former Soviet Union; coordinated the rescue of Jews and Muslims from Sarajevo; and airlifted more than 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in just 36 hours during Operation Solomon.
She held leadership positions with the NYU Langone Medical Center (NYULMC), the United Jewish Appeal, the Jewish Agency, the Israel Museum, the Jerusalem Foundation, the Hasbro Children’s Foundation, the Society of the Four Arts in Palm Beach, the Hospice of Palm Beach, and other organizations. She was the driving force behind the development of the Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYULMC, which is scheduled to open in 2017.
Among her numerous accolades, she was made an honorary citizen of Jerusalem; was appointed to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council by three different president; received the Emma Lazarus Statue of Liberty Award from the American Jewish Historical Society; and was honored by the National Conference of Christians and Jews. In addition to her two children, Sylvia is survived by three grandchildren, Laurie Block, Michael Block and Susan Block Casdin; and two great-grandchildren, Kinsey and Blaisdell Casdin.
Funeral services will be held on Tuesday, Aug. 19 at 1 p.m. at Temple Beth El, 70 Orchard Ave., Providence, with burial in Lincoln Park Cemetery, Warwick. Shiva will be observed at the home of Alan and Vivien Hassenfeld on Tuesday and Wednesday, Aug. 19-20, 7-9 p.m. Shiva will also be observed at the home of Susan and Alexander Casdin, 131 East 66th St., New York City, on Thursday, Aug. 21, 6-9 p.m., and Friday, Aug. 22, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. More information about the service is available from Sugarman-Sinai Memorial Chapel.