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tikkun olam

This Secretary Secretly Became a Multimillionaire, Then Donated Her Fortune

Henry Street Settlement

Henry Street Settlement, a New York social services organization founded by Jewish American Lillian Wald, is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year. And what a year it’s been: In February, the organization received its largest ever single gift from an individual.

A whopping $6.24 million gift was donated posthumously by a New Yorker, Sylvia Bloom, who worked as a secretary. It was part of a fortune that no one — including her close friends and family — knew she had.

As The New York Times reported, “Since Ms. Bloom never talked about [money], even to those closest to her, the fact that she had carefully cultivated more than $9 million among three brokerage houses and 11 banks, emerged only at the end of her life.”

Bloom, a legal secretary, worked for the same firm — Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton — for 67 years. She was privy to the investments of her bosses, so, as her niece Jane Lockshin tells the Times, “when the boss would buy a stock, she would make the purchase for him, and then buy the same stock for herself, but in a smaller amount because she was on a secretary’s salary.”

Bloom didn’t specify what philanthropies her fortune be donated to — only that they went to scholarships to help students. What scholarships was left up to Lockshin, her niece and executor of her will. Lockshin, who serves on Henry Street Settlement’s board, made the decision to split the money between Henry Street Settlement, Bloom’s alma mater, Hunter College, and one more scholarship (still to be announced).

Henry Street Settlement has a long Jewish history, initially founded by Wald, a nurse and humanitarian, to provide services to the poor Jewish immigrants living on the Lower East Side.

Lillian Wald

Lillian Wald

As Wald wrote in 1915 in her book The House on Henry Street, “The Lower East Side then reflected the popular indifference it almost seemed contempt for the living conditions of a huge population.” She worked to remedy that indifference; Wald set out to provide health care to the immigrant Jewish population of the neighborhood.

A colleague of Bloom’s tells the Times that Bloom “was a child of the Depression and she knew what it was like not to have money. She had great empathy for other people who were needy and wanted everybody to have a fair shake.” Similar to Wald, she believed everyone deserved an equal opportunity.

And now, Bloom’s no-longer-secret fortune is going to help the neediest in New York. Henry Street Settlement has grown past Wald’s initial mission. Now, according to their website, “delivers a wide range of social service, arts and health care programs to more than 60,000 New Yorkers each year.”

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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