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Billionaire philanthropist Lily Safra, 87, passed away Saturday in Geneva, Switzerland of pancreatic cancer, her spokesperson announced.

The iconic socialite inherited a fortune from her Syrian Jewish banker husband, Edmond Safra, with which she continued his generous support of organizations in the fields of education, science and medicine, religion and humanitarian relief in 40 countries around the world, through the Edmond J. Safra Foundation she chaired.


Forbes estimated her wealth at $1.3 billion.

Lily Safra was born in Brazil as Lily Watkins in 1934 to Jewish immigrants from Europe. At age 17, she moved to Montevideo, Uruguay, where she married Mario Cohen. The couple had three children before the marriage ended in divorce.

Moving back to Rio de Janeiro, she married a second time at age 30, to Alfredo (Freddy) Monteverde, a man who struggled with bipolar disorder, a challenging condition that ended with his death by suicide four years later in 1969.

A brief, one-year marriage three years later also ended in divorce.

In 1976, Lily married Edmond Safra; he built a multi-billion-dollar fortune after founding the US-based Republic National Bank, in addition to a private banking venture in Europe.

Safra, diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in the mid-1990s, died in December 1999 of smoke inhalation while trying to avoid a fire set by his nurse in the couple’s apartment in Monaco. The nurse, who confessed to the arson, was convicted and sent to prison.

Earlier that year, however, Safra had agreed to sell his banking empire to HSBC for nearly $10 billion. He split the estate between his wife Lily, his three sisters and the various charities he had supported. More than half of his wealth, in fact, was donated to the charities.

Lily Safra never remarried following the death of her billionaire husband. The couple owned homes in Switzerland, the UK, France, New York and Monaco.

Lily Safra continued her husband’s charitable works and chaired his foundation for more than 20 years. Among the projects she supported were the creation of the Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and the Edmond and Lily Safra Children’s Hospital in Tel Aviv’s Tel Hashomer Medical Center, and ensured the completion of the Edmond J. Safra Synagogue in Manhattan. She also helped found the Edmond J. Safra Brain Research Center for the Study of Learning Disabilities at the University of Haifa.

Lily Safra is survived by her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Baruch Dayan Emet.


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Hana Levi Julian is a Middle East news analyst with a degree in Mass Communication and Journalism from Southern Connecticut State University. A past columnist with The Jewish Press and senior editor at Arutz 7, Ms. Julian has written for, and other media outlets, in addition to her years working in broadcast journalism.