Alan Slifka, philanthropist, coexistence advocate, dies

Programs he backed train people who share his passion for repairing the world

Alan Slifka

Alan Slifka, a far-sighted philanthropist who entrusted Brandeis with helping his vision of coexistence flower in communities around the world, died on Feb. 4 after a battle with cancer. A powerful and committed believer in coexistence studies and longtime Brandeis supporter, Slifka was 81.

His Slifka Foundation last year made a $4.25 million gift to the university to expand the nine-year-old Master's Program in Coexistence and Conflict and to continue its pioneering work educating leaders in the emerging field of coexistence and shared societies. The gift established the Alan B. Slifka Chair in Coexistence and Conflict, moved the program to the Heller School for Social Policy and Management and provided additional faculty and program enhancements.

Slifka program alumni serve as diplomats, aid and development specialists, lawyers, journalists, and program managers in trouble spots around the world, including Israel, Latvia, Rwanda, Serbia and Sudan.

In honor of his parents, Slifka created the Sylvia and Joseph Slifka Israeli Coexistence Scholarship at Brandeis. It is awarded nearly every year to two Israeli citizens -- one Arab and one Jewish -- who are committed to, and will work to foster, greater tolerance and understanding between Arab and Jewish Israelis.

Slifka received an honorary doctor of humane letters degree from Brandeis in 2003. His son Randolph graduated from the University in 1984.

“Alan Slifka was a visionary for the coexistence ideal and helped shape a new approach to conflict resolution that focuses on how one can successfully build shared societies,” said Heller School Dean Lisa Lynch.  “He saw the Slifka program at Brandeis as a way to ensure the development of new leaders and thought in the field of coexistence that would re-shape our approach to conflict around the world.” 

Slifka was born in New York City in 1929, graduated from the Fieldston School, received his bachelor's degree from Yale in 1951, and earned an MBA from Harvard in 1953.

He founded and served as co-chair of Halcyon Asset Management. He was also founding chair of the beloved Big Apple Circus and co-founded The Abraham Fund Initiatives, the first not-for-profit organization created to further coexistence between Israel's Jewish and Arab citizens.

His foundation concentrated on the perpetuation of Jewish values and education in Israel and the Diaspora; the enhancement of coexistence within the borders of Israel, essentially between Jews and Arabs, but also between secular and religious; the advancement of coexistence and social cohesion as a governmental responsibility and priority globally; research on benefits of coexistence in a shared society and medical research in to the area of autism and Asperger's syndrome.

President Emeritus Jehuda Reinharz and Professor of Intercommunal Coexistence Mari Fitzduff, who is director of the Master's Program in Coexistence and Conflict, both cited Slifka's unwavering courage and commitment in pursuing his goal.

"Alan Slifka was a very courageous visionary who believed that the Abraham Fund, which he created, would facilitate improved relations between Israel and its neighboring countries," Reinharz said. "The Slifka Scholarships, which he created, have brought to Brandeis for well over a decade Israeli Jews and Arabs who are passionate, as he was, in achieving this vision.

"Alan was a kind, caring human being who truly believed it is possible to make our world a better place, and went about all his life trying to do just that," Reinharz said.

Fitzduff said she watched Slifka move from low-key dialogues to tough issues of policing and economic and social exclusion. "From concern about coexistence in Israel, he moved to  concern about coexistence in the whole of the world," she said.

"Alan fostered the ideas and terminology of coexistence in many countries," Fitzduff said. "His commitment was quite extraordinary."

"We, the Slifka family, will deeply mourn Alan's loss," the family said in a statement. "He was our strong and loving leader, always inspiring us to serve humanity, grow in our faith, and embrace and respect differences. We will continue his mission of tikkun olam" -- repairing the world.

A memorial service will be held at B'nai Jeshurun synagogue in New York on April 10. The funeral service will be private.

In addition to his son Randolph '84, Slifka is survived by his wife, Riva Ariella; his sister, Barbara; two other sons, Michael and David; his stepchildren, Torrie, Skye and Max; and three grandchildren.

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