Sheldon Adelson at 80
This past Friday marked the 80th birthday on the Jewish calendar of philanthropist Sheldon Adelson. There is something unique about Sheldon that is rare in people of affluence, namely, a convivial warmth and earthiness that is at once charming and disarming. When you say hello to him, you kiss him on the cheek and he kisses you right back. He teases you and expects you to tease him in return. He has rich friends, but he loves the company of people who have what he had as a kid, meaning not all that much.
He speaks often of his father who, as a cabdriver who struggled mightily just to feed his family, instilled deep-seated values in his son that remain with him till today. If you ask him why he loves giving money to charity, he will tell you that as a boy he watched his father putting coins every day in a Jewish National Fund charity box. When he reminded his father that they themselves were extremely poor, and asked why was he giving his money to others, his father told him, “There are always people poorer than you.”
If you ask Sheldon why he loves Israel so much, he’ll tell you his father had immense pride in being Jewish and harbored an irrepressible attachment to the Jewish homeland, even though he could never afford to visit. When Sheldon visited Israel for the first time, he took his father’s shoes and wore them so that at least his dad’s loafers could make prints in the holy land.
Then there are the family dinners with his wife Miriam and his two teenage sons. In his office, he is the boss of fifty thousand employees. But at home, he is just another father, kissing his kids as soon as he walks in, struggling as all parents do with teenagers to get them to give details on how their day went.
If you take a picture with him, he puts his arm around you and smiles warmly. I arrived one day on a bike in my tight cycling lycra, and he immediately ribbed me that the costume could be more flattering if I had a muscle or two to fill it out. A moment later he joked about how short he himself is.
Not since the Rothschilds and Moses Montefiore has one Jewish philanthropist so dominated the global Jewish stage with such total commitment to the Jewish people and the Jewish homeland. From my experience, this is also a rarity. When most businessmen reach the highest pinnacle of business achievement they feel the need to broaden their reach. Their Jewishness is not necessarily central to their lives, but is just another aspect thereof. They become known for supporting the Met and Harvard. To be sure, Sheldon supports universities and schools around the world in large number. And he is among the foremost donors to medical research on Earth. But his passion is the Jewish people. From ensuring that the martyred six million of the Holocaust are never forgotten to guaranteeing that assimilation does not make young Jews lost to their people (by bringing hundreds of thousands to Israel on Birthright), Sheldon’s Jewishness is his defining characteristic.
He and his wife Miriam, a medical doctor who is an authority on addiction and runs clinics in Israel and Las Vegas that save lives every day, have decided that their blessings must be put to global Jewish renewal and defending Israel against scurrilous attack.
And Sheldon is no shrinking violet. While other philanthropists seek respectability above all else, Sheldon simply couldn’t give a damn about being unpopular if the cause for which he fights is just. Many have criticized him for spending on elections. But he has made it clear that his backing of the Republican Party is connected with his belief that at this juncture in history, the GOP is more reliable on Israel and because he believes, as a self-made man who started life in poverty, that dignity comes from self-reliance. But that does not stop him from giving away hundreds of millions each year to people who are struggling to get by.
The Talmud says that at eighty, a person receives renewed strength. After a meeting, I watched Sheldon on his scooter (he has trouble with his legs and has difficulty walking) zooming down the long corridor of The Venetian in Las Vegas. His security detail struggled to keep up with him. He was a man with a mission. There was no time for leisure. At 80 he still has worlds to conquer, communities to enhance, an America to promote, an Israel to build, a family to lead, and a Jewish identity to grow.
And as I, a man in his forties, watched him zoom along looking straight ahead, it struck me that when a person dedicates his life to a higher mission, he is and remains utterly unstoppable.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is founder of This World: The Values Network, which is now launching the American Institute of Jewish values to promote universal Jewish teachings in the American media. He has recently published “The Fed-Up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering.” Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.