Hasbro family matriarch called leader and humanitarian


Sylvia K. (Kay) Hassenfeld, 93, international leader, human rights activist and philanthropist, died Aug. 15. She was the wife of the late Merrill L. Hassenfeld.  Born in Pennsylvania, the daughter of Joseph and Sophie (Flieglman) Kay, she was a resident of Palm Beach, Florida, and had lived in Providence for many years.   

Mrs. Hassenfeld has been described as “one of the most significant leaders in the American Jewish community of the 20th century.” In her more than 50 years of national and international humanitarian leadership, she served as the first woman president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). As president of the JDC, she initiated the International Development Program (IDP), which provides nonsectarian aid in times of crisis. Begun in response to the needs engendered by the Armenian earthquake, the IDP continues to provide vital emergency aid throughout the world. Also during her tenure as president, she oversaw JDC’s return to the former Soviet Union, the rescue of Jews and Muslims from Sarajevo, and Operation Solomon, which rescued more than 14,000 Ethiopian Jews via airlift in just 36 hours.

At her funeral Aug. 19, Rabbi Leslie Y. Gutterman, of Temple Beth-El in Providence, described her life as dedicated to giving and philanthropy.

“Sylvia Hassenfeld’s was one of the strongest and most persistent voices of our land that challenged our individual and collective Jewish conscience to the needs of the Jewish people, as well as the poor, the disenfranchised, the underdogs of all races, of all religions, of all nations,” he said.

At the time of her death, Mrs. Hassenfeld was the president of the Hassenfeld Foundation, a trustee of the NYU Langone Medical Center (NYULMC), a member of the executive committee of the board of the Israel Museum, a director of the Society of the Four Arts in Palm Beach and a board member of Hospice of Palm Beach.

A champion of children’s causes, Mrs. Hassenfeld served on the board of the Hasbro Children’s Foundation and was instrumental in establishing the Stephen D. Hassenfeld Children’s Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at NYULMC. She was the driving force behind the current development of a dedicated children’s hospital at NYULMC; the Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital is slated to open in 2017.

In addition, Mrs. Hassenfeld served as national chair of the Women’s Division of the United Jewish Appeal and vice-chair of the Jerusalem Foundation, as well as a number of other leadership roles at national and international Jewish organizations, including the board of the United Israel Appeal and the board of governors of the Jewish Agency. 

Board member emerita of Hasbro, Inc., Mrs. Hassenfeld served as a director on the company’s board for more than 20 years. As a leader in academia, she served as vice chair of the board at Brandeis University and on the advisory committee of the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, a program jointly administered by Johns Hopkins University and Nanjing University in Nanjing, China. She received an honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters from Brandeis University in 1998.

Distinguished historian, former president of Brandeis and longtime friend, Jehuda Reinharz, who bestowed an honorary degree on Mrs. Hassenfeld, described her as a dynamic individual who was instrumental in getting things accomplished while on the board of directors. She was one of the “most remarkable women of our generation,” he said at the funeral.

Mrs. Hassenfeld has been recognized internationally by numerous educational, cultural and civic organizations for her diplomatic skills and her role in protecting human rights, promoting religious freedom, influencing social policy and assuring services to children in need. Among her many honors and awards, she was made an honorary citizen of Jerusalem in recognition for her lifelong efforts on behalf of Jerusalem and its citizens. She was also a presidential appointee to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council under three different presidents, awarded the Emma Lazarus Statue of Liberty Award by the American Jewish Historical Society for “contributions to improving the human condition” and honored by the National Conference of Christians and Jews.

Mrs. Hassenfeld is survived by her two children, Alan Hassenfeld and Ellen Hassenfeld Block; three grandchildren, Laurie Block, Michael Block and Susan Block Casdin; two great-grandchildren. Kinsey and Blaisdell Casdin; and Vivien Hassenfeld (wife of Alan) and Alexander Casdin (husband of Susan). She was predeceased by her husband, Merrill Hassenfeld and her son Stephen D. Hassenfeld.

In lieu of flowers, contributions in her memory may be made to the Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYULMC, One Park Ave., 17th Floor, New York, New York 10016, Attn: Grace Ko.