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Sharing the Blessings

For years, the modest, publicity-shy Sutton family of Argentina has been supporting countless Torah institutions and chesed organizations without fanfare or plaques, following the moral imperative that patriarch Don Shaul Sutton z”l left to his children and grandchildren. Just before his passing a year ago at age 98, he invited us in to discover the secret of his good fortune


The tear-stained faces and heaving sobs accompanying a funeral procession at Har Hazeisim on a sunny November day a year ago might have convinced onlookers that the deceased was a young father taken in the prime of life, or perhaps a child, or maybe the victim of a terrorist attack. With all that sadness and grief, it certainly didn’t look like the funeral of a 98-year-old patriarch who merited supporting Torah institutions in Israel and around the world.

But according to Reb Alexander Sutton, whose venerated grandfather Don Shaul Sutton Dabbah passed away last year on 15 Cheshvan, the entire family — not to mention the Buenos Aires community he headed until his last days — still acutely feels the loss. “Everyone loved him ahavat nefesh,” says Reb Alexander, a Mir yeshivah avreich. “Of course the kehillah he led is strong and flourishing, but the demut is gone. He was a prince among men, and to us, he’s irreplaceable.”


I’ll Never Be Like Abba

Who are the Suttons, this modest, publicity-shy Argentinian family who for years have been supporting countless Torah institutions and chesed organizations without fanfare or plaques? The key to the answer is to understand the legacy that Don Shaul Sutton left to his children and grandchildren, a link in a chain that goes back to his own illustrious ancestors in Aleppo, Syria. Don Shaul Sutton’s philanthropic activities, from the time he was a young struggling businessman, had over the decades added up to millions of dollars. And in the 40 years following his retirement when he handed over the bulk of the family’s business interests to his son David and other family members, he devoted all his energies to communal and international causes — as president of the Syrian Jewish community in Buenos Aires and head of the community’s tzedakah fund, and as one of the world’s greatest contributors to Torah institutions.

Several months before he passed away, Don Shaul — as he was affectionately called by community members — agreed to grant Mishpacha an interview, although he never had a desire for public exposure and rarely revealed himself to the media. But when the Israeli Torah world he’d worked so hard to support found itself at the bottom of the state’s budgetary ladder, the most influential baal tzedakah in Argentina decided to break his nearly hundred-year silence. He wanted to teach the younger generation of successful entrepreneurs what it really means to give, and how to put your life out there for the klal.

We met in his home on a Friday afternoon, where we were joined by some of his locally residing children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren; Erev Shabbos was a traditional visiting time, and his son and successor Reb David Sutton — who lives two miles away — was there every week to escort his father across the street to shul. The custom had its roots decades ago when Reb David would send his sons to spend Shabbos with their grandparents so they wouldn’t be alone. But then his oldest son, Shaul, went to learn in the Scranton yeshivah; after that, his second and third sons, Ariel and Alexander, went to learn in Jerusalem’s Kol Torah. And so David began going himself, at least on Friday and Shabbos morning.

[This past summer on a visit to Israel, Reb David reminisced about those Fridays. “Abba would say to me, ‘Why do you have to bother coming? The (non-Jewish) ozeret can take me to shul.’ I told him, ‘What? You should walk across the street with a goyta? You have no sons? My kavod is to take you!’ ” In fact, every Erev Shabbos Reb David, no youngster himself, would take a cab to his father’s house, escort the elder Sutton to shul, and walk home. On Shabbos morning, he would make the walk again, have Kiddush with his parents after services, and then walk back home.]

When the elderly Don Shaul entered the room, I happened to be standing at the sink filling up a washing cup. Don Shaul watched me and commented knowingly, “Make sure to pour plenty of water. Water is a symbol of parnassah and brachah, and the more you fill the cup, the greater the outpouring of blessing will be.” Who wouldn’t take such advice from a man who has been so blessed himself?

“Come, come,” said Don Shaul, inviting me into his living room, where I soon faced a portrait of Don Shaul’s father, Chacham David Sutton Dabbah, chief rabbi of the Syrian community in Buenos Aires in the early part of the century.

Legend has it that when Chacham David Sutton, a native of Aleppo who had migrated to Jerusalem, came to Buenos Aires to collect money for his Syrian brothers, Chacham Shaul Sutton — his second cousin — then held the position of chief rabbi. While Chacham David was there, Chacham Shaul became ill and asked his cousin to remain in Buenos Aires and help him with his rabbinic duties. Chacham David was fierce in his uncompromising protection of Torah and mesorah, yet by the time Chacham Shaul Sutton passed away, Chacham David had become a beloved figure, the second chief rabbi of the Syrian community in Buenos Aires.

As the spiritual leader of the community, Chacham David was a wise rav who ruled his kehillah with unbending principles — no easy feat as the winds of change began blowing into Argentina.

Don Shaul — who was born in Chalab (Aleppo) in 1916 and moved with his father, Chacham David, to Jerusalem as a child — was 14 years old when his father left Jerusalem for Argentina. “I was learning in Yeshivat Porat Yosef under Chacham Shrem at the time, and things were good for me there. I didn’t want to leave,” he remembers, although in the end he did accompany his father to South America.

But his grandson Reb Alexander says that to his dying day, Don Shaul felt bad that he didn’t continue his Torah education in Jerusalem. “Saba used to tell us how, as a young boy in Yeshivat Porat Yosef in the 1920s, he would be tested every week by Rav Ezra Attiya. If he did well, he would get a shilling, which he would spend at a nearby eatery and buy a coveted plate of rice and beans — a real treat in the poverty-stricken old yishuv. Yet he always lamented that he didn’t continue there. He continued to learn Torah, but the momentum was lost. He used to say, ‘My father was a great rav, and I’ll never be like him.’ ”


The Highest Bidder

Don Shaul was a man of few words and much action, but he did reveal what he considered to be the secret of the Divine blessing for his eventual wealth, what he calls “the best deal I ever made.”

It was in the 1940s, when Chacham David was the chief rabbi of the community and Don Shaul was a small-time businessman eking out a living selling textiles. “On Erev Yom Kippur, my father came to me and told me that it was very important that he buy the kibbud of holding the sefer Torah during Kol Nidrei. In the Syrian community, this kibbud is considered a particularly powerful segulah, and the honor was generally given to the rav. But that year, the Vaad Hakehillah decided to open the bidding to others – the person who held the sefer Torah was also the one who led the congregation in Kol Nidrei.

“I made an initial bid, but the wealthy members of the community began bidding higher, and so I kept raising my bid to keep up with them. A murmur of surprise went through the crowd at the sight of the rav’s son, who was not wealthy at all, competing with the most affluent people in the community for Kol Nidrei. As the sums rose higher, everyone held their breath, waiting to see just how far my stubbornness would go. But at that point I knew I couldn’t back down,” Don Shaul related.

The bids skyrocketed, and when the auction was over, young Shaul found himself in the position of having to sell half his assets in order to meet his obligations. “But it was worth it for me,” he declared. “The most important thing to me was that I had bought Kol Nidrei for my father.

“After Yom Kippur, my father called me into his room and gave me a brachah that, in exchange for sacrificing my business to fulfill his request, Hashem should bless me and my entire family with boundless affluence.”

That was the humble version of the story, the way Don Shaul told it; but after his passing, David Sutton explained the background for what was much more than a dedicated mission of kibbud av. It was drawing the battle lines for the future spiritual level of the kehillah. Many of the affluent Jews at the time were happy to keep the minimal traditions, but felt that modern times called for change in the strictures of Jewish communal life.

“The Kol Nidrei bidding was really a battle for the rav’s authority,” says Reb David. “Abba did it for the kavod of his father, but it was really for kavod haTorah. Abba was the one who succeeded in transforming the position of rav from a community employee to a community leader.”

After Chacham David passed away, Don Shaul spent the next 70 years continuing to fight for the rav’s authority. He was the right hand of Rav Yitzchak Chehebar — Chacham David’s successor — for the next four decades, and working until the end of his life against the tide, in order to ensure strict rabbinic leadership in Buenos Aires.


Time to Retire

Shaul Sutton, like many of Argentina’s Jews, began his business dealings by selling textiles. Around 1960, he left his partners and struck out independently with two of his sons David and Yisrael (his youngest son Rav Daniel Sutton is a Torah scholar of note in the Sephardic and Satmar communities) and his brother Shlomo z”l, who was also his son-in-law. The family’s financial success took off a few years later in the perfume business, when they launched a local fragrance called Crandall, inspired by the worldwide best seller, Brut de Faberge. His success in the perfume business turned Don Shaul into the wealthy owner of a thriving company called Cannon Puntana, which branched out into a line of popular perfumes and colognes.

Then, when Don Shaul was 65, he summoned his brother and sons and informed them that he had decided to retire and to place the business in their hands so that he could dedicate the rest of his life to communal causes.

Once David Sutton had taken the helm of the family business, he found himself contending with no small number of hurdles, some stemming from turmoil in the international financial sector while others were the product of Argentina’s own difficult economy. But under his leadership, the company grew to massive proportions, the scope of its business dealings reaching the billions. And its contributions to the Torah world in Eretz Yisrael rose accordingly.

Along with the expansion of the perfume business, David Sutton opened yet another branch of the family-owned Cannon company that raised its profits even higher: In 1985 the Sutton Group purchased the Alvear Palace Hotel that was in disrepair and on the verge of bankruptcy, invested millions of dollars in renovating it, and turned it into one of the most upscale hotels in Buenos Aires and rated by tourist magazines among the top ten hotels in the world.

The family’s hotel chain expanded with the construction of the Alvear Art Hotel; the purchase of the Llao Llao in the ski resort town of Bariloche, the Plaza Hotel in the Florida neighborhood, and the tallest residential building in South America in Puerto Madero, a high-end strip of Argentina’s coast. The Sutton Group has recently diversified to include a chain of malls.

“My father has special siyata d’Shmaya,” David’s son Ariel relates. “He always knows how to anticipate economic developments and how to take advantage of them.” He says that when Argentina’s previous finance minister, Martinez de Oz, suddenly announced an equivalence between the peso and the dollar, everyone thought they’d entered an economic messianic age. “Everything was suddenly cheap, and people began shopping in the US and buying American products. But my father understood that the bubble was going to burst. While people were taking out dollar loans because they were cheap, my father was buying gold. Everyone thought he was crazy, but they later suffered while the value of gold rose.”

David Sutton tells Mishpacha that he learned well about the blessings of wealth — and how those blessings should be channeled — from his father. “He taught me the rules,” says Reb David who, a year after his father’s passing, confides that he’ll never be able to fill Don Shaul’s shoes. “He taught us that you can only receive blessing if you have a yad patuach, an open hand that gives before it gets. But Abba was more than just a giver. He was kodesh kodoshim. He would recite Tehillim for hours, and at 98, never missed a learning seder. Me? I’m just here to do business.”

The devotion to building up yeshivos and other institutions in Eretz Yisrael has always been close to David Sutton’s heart. For years he served as president of Keren Hayesod in Argentina and has been a member of both the Keren Hayesod World Board of Trustees and the Jewish Agency Board of Governors. Inspired by Don Shaul’s own mesirus nefesh, he and his brothers chartered a planeload of immigrants arriving from Turkmenistan to Eretz Yisrael. And he’s been deployed to represent the Israeli government in functions around the world, one of which was a ceremony sponsored by King Juan Carlos of Spain to apologize to the Jewish People for the Spanish Expulsion. For that affair, Sutton and his poised, soft-spoken wife Berta had to take a special course in royal etiquette.

But Reb David says it’s just a continuation of his father’s lessons in community consciousness. “One of my strongest childhood memories is accompanying my father when he would run after other donors to match him in his projects — and this was before he was blessed with wealth.”

“When my father wanted to build a large beit knesset in the resort town of Punta del Este,” he continues, “Argentina was going through some very difficult economic times. We, his children, said to him, ‘Abba, maybe we should wait a bit. Even Rome wasn’t built in a day.’ But he said to us, ‘I have only one Partner, and He will never leave me, not even at a time like this. This is a payment that I have to make to my “Partner” — the Master of the Universe.’ ”


My Father’s Legacy 

David Sutton avoids speaking about himself and his own philanthropy — he says it’s really all about his venerated father, Don Shaul. “My father built up this community from his own pocket,” he says. “When he left the business about 40 years ago, he said to us, ‘You guys don’t need me anymore. Now I’m putting my efforts into the kehillah.’ ”

Don Shaul built the Beit David yeshivah (named after his father, as are many of the mosdos he established) and the Torateinu yeshivah network for the Syrian community. He wanted everyone to be able to eat kosher, and established a restaurant to serve the community so there would be kosher dining services and no more excuses for making parties in nonkosher venues. He established a kosher catering kitchen alongside the restaurant to provide food for weddings and other simchahs. He also funded the building of a kosher mikveh, as well as the Jewish high school and yeshivah, Yesod Hadat.

“My father actually wanted to build a university here, in addition to the school. When he built this large school building, people thought he was crazy. They couldn’t imagine there would be nearly enough students to fill it. But today, baruch Hashem, the building is packed, even though there’s still no university.” Eventually Don Shaul built another shul — Succat David — where minyanim are ongoing morning and night.

“Back then, kashrus was a big issue, and he took the situation into his own hands,” says Reb David. “If there was a Jewish event in a hotel, he would make sure to be there to see that it was kosher. Sometimes he would kasher the hotel himself. Often he would walk an hour on Shabbos to make sure the function was really kosher. If there was a wedding and one side wanted kosher but the other didn’t, he would kasher the hotel for the wedding and not even tell the other side about it.”

Once a young man was getting married, and although he was not religious, he agreed to make the wedding kosher. Don Shaul was in the kitchen supervising, and the groom assumed he was the mashgiach. The next day the young couple flew to New York for a honeymoon, when they saw the “mashgiach” on the same plane, flying business class. “Kashrus supervisors make so much money they can fly business?” the newlywed asked him a bit suspiciously. When Don Shaul explained that he in fact was a businessman and just a kashrus volunteer, the young man was so impressed that he kept up the relationship, and over the years the two became very close.

True to his agenda of “give and let others give,” Don Shaul wasn’t always the exclusive contributor to these endeavors. He solicited the efforts of other wealthy Syrian Jews from around the world, who, knowing his own massive personal involvement, would never turn him down.

In addition to their copious financial support of the Torah world and its public institutions, Don Shaul Sutton and his wife Dona Louisa worked tirelessly to help young couples establish their first homes. Even in his upper 90s, Don Shaul could be seen rushing about on a regular basis selling raffle tickets for various auctions to support hachnassas kallah projects.

Dona Louisa, who is 95 and still in charge of her projects, founded the Bircat Avraham gemach that provides funds for needy brides. Dona Louisa still raises funds for the gemach and despite her advanced age, insists on personally taking each kallah shopping, helping her find suitable stores and offering her advice on what to purchase.


Never Give Less

While for years Reb David managed the family’s donations, today the man entrusted with the distribution of the family’s vast tzedakah portfolio is David’s son Shaul Sutton, who in classic Sephardic tradition, was named in honor of his living grandfather. The younger Shaul Sutton spends all day learning in a Sutton-supported kollel called Beis David and evenings are devoted to dealing with the many requests for funds that arrive from all over the world.

The guidelines laid down by his grandfather, Don Shaul Sutton, were clear: Any legitimate institution for Torah study is to be granted a donation, and the Suttons try not to give less than what they gave previously. Today there are about 700 institutions that are in the Sutton database, and private people in need of funds know that on every Monday and Wednesday evening in the waiting room on the second floor of the Yesod Hadat Synagogue in Buenos Aires, they’re bound to come away with a generous contribution.

“My brothers Shaul and Ariel, who manage the allocations, inherited Saba’s sensitivity,” says Alexander. “And Shaul, like Saba, has become a bit of a shnorrer himself, asking others to share in the mitzvah of his projects. Abba was once in Eretz Yisrael when he heard a couple arguing in the supermarket about whether to buy one little pudding container that they’d split between the kids. The husband wanted to put out the two shekels, but the wife said they couldn’t afford it. When Shaul heard this, he thought, ‘How can we permit ourselves luxuries when families can’t even afford a spoonful of pudding?’ And so he got 10 other people to donate with him, and together they’ve set up a fund for 40 poor avreichim in Eretz Yisrael who now receive $400 a month.”



In South America, wealth brings its share of danger, and the Suttons experienced their own chilling kidnapping saga with the abduction of David’s brother Yisrael (who goes by the nickname Mumi). Yet even that was a catalyst for brachah in their wealth.

“It was back in 1980,” recounted Leah Sutton, Rabbi Daniel Sutton’s wife. “They called from the office and said they needed my husband urgently — they said there had been a break-in, but said nothing about a kidnapping and I didn’t want to interrupt my husband’s learning. But the caller, who was a senior employee of the company, insisted that it was urgent, so I went to get my husband from the beis medrash, and we went to the office together. We found the place surrounded by policemen, but we assumed it was because of the break-in. We didn’t fathom there had been a kidnapping.

Yisrael’s wife and mother were out of the country at the time, blissfully unaware of the drama unfolding in Buenos Aires. Meanwhile Don Shaul and his sons David and Rav Daniel waited anxiously for contact from the kidnappers, which was not long in coming. The abductors demanded a million dollars in exchange for Mumi’s release, ending with a message that if the police would be involved in any way, it would be Mumi’s end.

Don Shaul was beside himself, and immediately traveled with David to Eretz Yisrael to consult with rabbanim. The mekubal Rabbi Moshe Ben Tov assured him that Mumi was alive and was feeling well, aside from having pain in his legs. The Baba Sali advised him to daven at the kever of Rabbi Yaakov Abuchatzeirah in Dimenhor, Egypt, and promised Don Shaul that his son would be freed on Shabbos Hagadol, without the family having to pay a penny. Don Shaul was so strengthened by the Bab Sali’s promise that later that day when he met a friend at the Kosel who asked what was happening, Don Shaul answered, “Now everything is b’seder.” The friend then turned to David and said, “Your father has lost his mind.” Little did he know the Baba Sali’s words were indeed prophetic.

Meanwhile, the Sutton women returned to Argentina, and when Dona Louisa Sutton discovered the truth when Mumi didn’t show up at a family wedding, she began to daven and cry out, “Please G-d, let all my chesed be a merit for Yisrael!”

Negotiations with the kidnappers continued, the family raised the requested sum, and the kidnappers specified the date when the money was to be delivered. The family members were stunned to see that it fell out on… Shabbos Hagadol. David Sutton, who was handling the negotiations, settled with the kidnappers on a drop-off location, but contrary to the agreement, did bring in undercover police officers who had been kept abreast of the crisis. When the kidnappers arrived and sensed they were not alone, they fled — but not before drawing their hands across their throats, signaling what they planned to do to Mumi.

“When the kidnappers fled, my brother-in-law David had no idea what to do,” Leah remembers. “What could he tell his father now? What could he tell Mumi’s wife? It seemed that Mumi was doomed. But the police didn’t give up. An undercover officer followed the kidnappers, tracked them to where Mumi was being held, and overpowered the two bodyguards who were guarding Mumi. And so, without the family paying a single penny, Mumi was released in the middle of Shabbos Hagadol, unharmed, just as the Baba Sali had promised.”

The million dollars never did reach the kidnappers’ hands. Instead, the family decided to thank Hashem by giving Him the ransom, and so the million dollars were distributed to yeshivos in Yerushalayim.”

Rachel Ginsberg contributed to this report


Sages and Segulot

According to family lore, the name “Sutton” is attributed to a miraculous salvation of a family ancestor who became deathly ill. One night after the doctors had given up, his grandmother appeared to him in a dream and promised him that he would recover. When he woke up, he opened his eyes and declared in Arabic, “Siti hon — Grandmother is here.” A few days later he made a complete recovery, and the family adopted the name “Sitteon” or “Sutton.”

Chacham Avraham Sutton, the chief rabbi of Aleppo and author of Milel leAvraham, passed away in 1815 and was succeeded by his grandson, Chacham Moshe Sutton, an outstanding talmid chacham who represented the Jews of Aleppo before the government. Chacham Moshe passed away in 1877 and was succeeded by his nephew, Chacham Yosef Sutton, who authored several seforim dealing with both halachah and aggadah. When Chacham Yosef passed away, the leadership was handed down to his grandson Chacham David Sutton — a tzaddik and holy man with a reputation as a miracle worker — who later became the chief rabbi in Buenos Aires.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 582)

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