Lord Jacob Rothschild, scion of British banking family and major donor to Jewish causes, dies at 87

As chair of his family's Yad Hanadiv, the foundation became one of the key funders of the 'renewal' of the National Library of Israel, which opened in October

Lord Jacob Rothschild, the scion of the famed banking family and a major donor to Jewish causes around the world, died on Monday at 87, his family announced.

Born Nathaniel Charles Jacob Rothschild in 1936 to Victor Rothschild and Barbara Judith Rothschild, he was the fourth Baron Rotschild and the great-great-great-great grandson of Mayer Amschel Rothschild, a coin trader who launched a banking dynasty through his ties to Holy Roman Empire aristocracy.

“Our father, Jacob, was a towering presence in many peoples’ lives – a superbly accomplished financier, a champion of the arts and culture, a devoted public servant, a passionate supporter of charitable causes in Israel and Jewish culture, a keen environmentalist and much-loved friend, father and grandfather,” the family said in a statement. “He will be buried in accordance with Jewish custom in a small family ceremony, and there will be a memorial at a later date to celebrate his life.”

In 1961, Rothschild married Serena Dunn, with whom he had four children: Hannah, Beth, Emily and Nathaniel. Serena died in 2019.

Rothschild joined the London branch of the family’s N.M. Rothschild & Sons bank in 1963 and eventually broke away from it as part of a contentious merger with another merchant bank, S.G. Warburg. In 2019, when he retired, his personal fortune was estimated at more than $1 billion.

Until his death, he served as chairman of the British-based Rothschild Foundation and as president of the Israel-based Yad Hanadiv, literally meaning “Hand of the benefactor,” in reference to the moniker — Hanadiv Hayadua, “the well-known benefactor — that was given to one of his ancestors, Baron Edmond James de Rothschild, when he supported the fledgling Jewish communities in then-Ottoman Palestine.

Yad Hanadiv’s CEO, Yigal Mersel, hailed Rothschild as “a visionary whose generosity of spirit and forward thinking led to the establishment of numerous major institutions and initiatives in Israel.”

He added: “These have strengthened innovation, culture and research, helping to advance Israel as a vibrant democracy for all its citizens. Lord Rothschild’s legacy lives on in Yad Hanadiv’s work, which will continue for generations to come.”

In a statement, Yad Hanadiv noted specific contributions that Rothschild made to its work in Israel since the mid-1960s when he joined its advisory committee.

“[He] played a key role in the establishment of the Jerusalem Music Center, the Center for Educational Technology, the Open University of Israel and the Rothschild Postdoctoral Fellowships,” the organization said. 

“As chair of Yad Hanadiv, Lord Rothschild presided over the inauguration of the Supreme Court building in Jerusalem (funded entirely by Yad Hanadiv), built the Ra’anana Campus of the Open University and the Visitors Pavilion at Ramat Hanadiv [a park and nature reserve in Zichron Ya’akov] — the first LEED-certified public building in Israel. He led major initiatives in the fields of education, environment, academic excellence, Arab community, and early childhood.”

In 2018, his daughter, Hannah Rothschild, succeeded him as chair of Yad Hanadiv, though he stayed on as president. She will also succeed him as chair of the Rothschild Foundation.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog said in a statement that Rothschild was “a close friend of my family” and described him as a “a great man who carried the historic legacy of his family with pride and humility, working always for the wellbeing of Britain, Israel, and Jewish communities all over the world.”

“While we are especially sad to lose him during such difficult days, his generosity and wise counsel will be remembered with love and gratitude,” Herzog said.

Under Rothschild’s leadership, Yad Hanadiv became one of the primary funders of the construction of the new National Library of Israel building in Jerusalem, which opened in October. “Sadly, he did not live to see the completed building,” Yad Hanadiv noted.

“Lord Rothschild was the driving force and spirit behind the renewal of the National Library of Israel. The Jewish people and the State of Israel will forever be indebted to him for this invaluable treasure,” Sallai Meridor, the library’s board chair, said in a statement. “I am deeply saddened by his passing, and for his not being able to see the new library building as it is today, filled with light, life, and meaning.”

In a statement, the National Library of Israel noted that Rothschild — through his philanthropic activities in Europe — also allowed it to connect the library with “people, heritage institutions, and Jewish communities across Europe.”

Though he did not visit the completed building, Rothschild did attend and speak at the groundbreaking ceremony in 2016, in which he explained his support for the institution.

“For 2,000 years our treasured books were scattered, with no geographic center of gravity. Now at long last, these volumes as well as those yet to be written, together with a wide range of other collected materials, are to have a permanent home and one where it should be — in the heart of Jerusalem,” he said at the event. “The library will have the responsibility of nothing less than preserving and illuminating the history of Jewish civilization.”

Rothschild is survived by his four children and many grandchildren.