James Shasha, the businessman and benefactor who founded and endowed the Shasha Seminar for Human Concerns at Wesleyan, died Oct. 21. He was 91.
Born in Baghdad, Iraq, in 1929, he emigrated to the United States when he was 15 and later attended Wesleyan, graduating in 1950 with a major in economics. In 1955 he moved to Argentina, where he pursued his business interests in the wool and carpet industries, serving as the country’s delegate to the International Wool and Textile organization. Later, at 73, he decided to delve into the hotel business without previous experience in this industry. He acquired four hotels: three in Argentina and one in Uruguay.
Always interested in education and the qualities of citizenship, he told Hebrew University in Jerusalem, an institution with which he was also affiliated: “After World War II there was a lot of idealism about how to build a better world and that was what made me understand and incorporate what a citizen’s responsibility should be: take responsibility for the environment, be it the community, the country, or culture in which it participates.”
He developed the Shasha Seminars first at the Hebrew University and then imported them to Wesleyan.
In 2002, Wesleyan offered the first Shasha Seminar for Human Concerns, which became an annual event from then on. James Shasha’s goal was to encourage discussion with alumni on relevant topics and current events. “He would say that he missed the intellectual life at Wesleyan and that this was a way of going ‘back to school,’” recalls his daughter Leslie Shasha ’82. Among the topics that Shasha Seminars explored were the Cultural Roots of Global Conflict; Ethical Choices in an Interconnected World; Saving Our Planet; Food: Power and Identity; and Mass Incarceration. In 2018, the seminar invited participants to consider Suicide and Resilience; most recently the theme was Understanding Russia: A Dramatic Return to the World Stage.
Speaking at Shasha’s memorial service held in New York City in November, Leslie Shasha noted, “I am very fortunate and blessed to have had such a unique father as he was. When I think of him, I think of resilience, generosity, wisdom, empathy, a visionary, peace, creativity, a brilliant mind. He was a man of few words and big accomplishments.”
Also speaking at the service, Professor of Psychology, Emeritus, Karl Scheibe brought a message from President Michael S. Roth for those assembled to remember James Shasha: “Jim Shasha was an intrepid, creative businessman and citizen. He was a man of great curiosity and care, and his generosity to the causes he loved served so many so well. At Wesleyan, his alma mater, we are fortunate to have beneficiaries of his vision and his big-heartedness. We will continue to study and communicate about causes that matter, thanks to his commitment to a university that he served so well.”
Scheibe, who had mentored Leslie in her undergraduate years, and had then met James and the Shasha family in 1983 on a Wesleyan-sponsored tour to Buenos Aires, also shared his thoughts. He and Leslie, now a psychologist, had worked together to direct and facilitate the Shasha Seminar in 2018.
Said Scheibe: “Ideas matter. And the cultivation of those ideas is something that you can either do or not do. And Jim could not leave off cultivating ideas. He wanted to encourage such things to happen, so he sponsored this program at Wesleyan, which has just been an enormous contribution to our university and will continue to be so for years and decades to come. His legacy is a living one for us, and for that I am enormously grateful.”