Sylvia Hassenfeld is one of the most important American Jewish communal leaders and philanthropists of the twentieth century. Born in Philadelphia, the only child of Sophie and Joseph Kay, Hassenfeld has been an international leader in business, philanthropy, Jewish communal service, and non-governmental organizations.
Hassenfeld’s activities have been focused especially in public service involving endangered Jewish populations around the world and services to children in need. In the Jewish community, she has held a variety of national and international leadership positions. From 1988 to 1992, Hassenfeld was the first female president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (also known as the JDC, or “Joint”). She served as national vice chairman of the United Jewish Appeal and chair of its National Women’s Division; as a member of Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel and chair of its Rural Settlement Committee; and as a member of the boards of the United Israel Appeal, the Jerusalem Foundation, the Council of Jewish Federations, the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture, the UJA-Federation of Greater New York, the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel and Brandeis University.
Hassenfeld’s involvement in Jewish communal affairs began when she married the late Merrill Hassenfeld and relocated to his hometown, Providence, Rhode Island. Sylvia was strongly influenced by the Hassenfeld family’s traditional involvement in Jewish religious and community life in Providence, as well as in Zionism. New England was a center of American Zionism, and Providence was very much a part of the twentieth-century American movement for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Merrill’s parents took an active role in Jewish affairs that Merrill and Sylvia continued, along with Merrill’s brother Harold and his wife, Rita, and which has been inherited by Sylvia and Merrill’s children today. Their daughter, Ellen Block, and their son, Alan Hassenfeld, are deeply active in Jewish and general philanthropy, especially involving the needs of children.
The Hassenfeld family business, which was pencil manufacturing when Sylvia married Merrill, evolved through a series of stages into the Hasbro Corporation, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of children’s toys. While serving on the board of directors of Hasbro and rearing her family, which also included her late son Stephen, Sylvia grew increasingly involved in the Providence Jewish Federation, eventually rising to the position of president. That involvement led to her roles in the Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds and other national and international Jewish organizations.
Sylvia Hassenfeld’s most significant contribution to world Jewry to date was her term as chairperson of the Joint Distribution Committee. The liberalization process in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe coincided with Hassenfeld’s presidency of the JDC, and her skillful diplomacy with the heads of state, government officials and leaders of non-governmental organizations contributed to the protection of Jewish civil and religious affairs. During her tenure at JDC, Hassenfeld oversaw the development of social service, health, religious, and educational programs in the Czech Republic, Armenia, Hungary, Russia, Austria, Romania, Poland, and Bulgaria, among other nations.
In Africa and the Middle East, Hassenfeld represented the Joint Distribution Committee in those countries with a Jewish population. The dramatic airlift that relocated thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel, coordinated by the Joint Distribution Committee and the Israeli government, occurred during Hassenfeld’s presidency. Working closely with the Executive Director of the Joint Distribution Committee, Michael Schneider, and his staff, Hassenfeld was able to mobilize significant financial resources and the cooperation of El Al Airlines to carry the Ethiopian Jews to Erez Israel. In recognition of her “contributions to improving the human condition,” especially in regard to world Jewry, in 1994 the American Jewish Historical Society awarded Sylvia Hassenfeld its Emma Lazarus Statue of Liberty Award.
Sylvia Hassenfeld’s commitment to the improvement of the human condition extends beyond the Jewish world to the lives of children around the globe. The Hasbro Charitable Trust provides gifts of holiday toys to hundreds of hospitals and shelters annually. The Hasbro Children’s Foundation, which is currently chaired by Ellen Block, represents the Hassenfeld’s commitment to the well-being of all children. Its mission is to support the development of direct service programs that improve the quality of life for children from birth through age twelve, their families, and communities. Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Providence is a leading center for treatment of childhood diseases.
The Hasbro corporation’s involvement in philanthropy for children arises naturally from its involvement in the toy industry, but it also stems from a deep personal commitment from Sylvia’s son Stephen. She traces the company’s and her focus on improving the lot of children around the world to a conversation she and Stephen had with child psychiatrist Lee Salk, who described America’s and the world’s children as not having advocates. The needs of the world’s children remain great, and the Hasbro corporate foundations and the Hassenfeld family personally invest liberally in medical research and in the direct provision of services to vulnerable youth. Additionally, the Hasbro company has a corporate philosophy, carefully maintained by its Hassenfeld family leadership, to manufacture toys which promote healthy values in children. The company has refused to produce guns, violent action figures, or other toys that might promote aggression or antisocial attitudes.
Beyond her involvement in Jewish communal life, Sylvia Hassenfeld serves on the Board of Trustees of the New York University Medical Center, the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, the Paul Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and the advisory board of New York University’s Center for Philanthropy. She was appointed by President Clinton to be a member of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council.
When asked to reflect on the changing role of women in Jewish communal life since her days as a young leader of the Providence Jewish Federation, Sylvia Hassenfeld observed:
More women are active on governing boards than in the past. Before, they spoke only as individuals; now, they speak as women’s advocates. Bonded together, they’ve made a difference. There’s a “girls’ club” that’s made a positive difference. Women have risen to prominence in Jewish organizations because they keep organizations going. Women get involved because they care.
Hassenfeld, Sylvia. Interview with author, May 1997.