What Motivates Dr. Miriam and Sheldon Adelson?
On March 14, we hosted the world’s foremost Jewish philanthropists — Dr. Miriam and Sheldon Adelson — as guests at our Global Leaders Lecture Series. It was a fascinating and intimate evening with young Jewish professionals and student leaders in attendance. Our purpose was to dig deep into what motivates the unique commitment of this dominant Jewish philanthropic couple to Jewish life, and especially the state of Israel.
Sheldon told us about his father’s life in Lithuania as a Jew. His father experienced terrible antisemitism at the hands of the Cossacks, who would ride into town beating and whipping the Jews who lived there. Sheldon said that his father cried when he watched Fiddler on the Roof, because he experienced the very violence and antisemitism that was portrayed in the production.
Sheldon’s father always believed that the Jewish people needed a state for themselves where they could live freely. His father’s experiences in Europe had a deep impact on Sheldon’s own personal views. In fact, his father was never able to afford a visit to the holy land, so years later, Sheldon brought and wore his father’s shoes when on his visit to Israel. It was a symbolic way of fulfilling the wish that his father had dreamed of his entire life.
It also inspired, he said, his deep commitment to Birthright, the organization that he and Miri primarily fund. He did not want Jews to have to wait until they were old and infirm to visit Israel. They should do so as young men and women.
Sheldon also discussed the extreme poverty his family faced when he grew up. He once told me that his commitment to philanthropy stems in part from watching his father putting coins in the JNF tzedaka (alms) box. “Why are you giving money away, Dad, when we ourselves are so poor?,” he asked.“Because there are always people poorer than you,” his father said. “And you always have to give.”
Miriam Adelson talked to us about her family’s past as the inspiration behind her commitment to Israel and the Jewish people. Her mother grew up in an orthodox Jewish family, members of the Alexander Chassidic movement. Miriam’s mother’s family was murdered in the Holocaust and she lost many of her relatives. But as a Zionist, her mother moved to Palestine before the war and miraculously survived.
Miriam told us how she was not raised religious, but there was still a strong emphasis on Jewish heritage in the curriculum of her school. The kids would say the Adon Olam prayer every morning and study the Hebrew bible, which Miriam told us she really enjoyed. She also told how nearly her entire grade was made up of children whose parents had been Holocaust survivors, and almost none of the kids had grandparents or aunts or uncles, because they had all been murdered by the Nazis.
As the discussion turned to Israel, Miriam and Sheldon gave their opinions on the greatest dangers facing the Jewish state. Miriam explained her belief that the lies and propaganda against Israel were as much as a threat as the physical one. She said that in the end, the Jewish people would of course prevail against its enemies, but that it would take time and dedicated effort.
Sheldon spoke of the importance that the Jews hold onto their identity and traditions, and pass on that heritage to the next generation. As Sheldon said, “Once a Jew always a Jew.” Though they themselves are not orthodox, Sheldon spoke of how they do not miss Friday night Shabbat meals and always say the Kiddush on Friday nights with their children and grandchildren to acknowledge the Sabbath day.
The conversation next turned to the Birthright Israel program. The Adelsons spoke of Birthright’s importance for the future of the Jewish people. Sheldon quoted a recent poll of Jewish youth in the United States who were asked if they would marry Jewish and or raise their children Jewish. Only 42% of respondents answered that they would. However, among those who went on the Birthright Israel program, 76% answered affirmatively. The Adelsons have helped Birthright Israel bring more than 500,000 Jewish youths to Israel since the program began in 1999. Just to put that in perspective, that’s like bringing the entire city of Tucson, Arizona, to Israel.
Sheldon remarked on the importance of ensuring that all Jewish young people end up going on the Birthright trip, and his commitment to continuing to fund Birthright toward that objective.
Someone from the crowd asked Sheldon and Miriam how we can best influence people to be more supportive of and enthusiastic about the Jewish state. They responded that we have to tell the truth about Israel and what an important democratic ally it is to the United States. Sheldon and Miriam were involved in the educational arm of AIPAC, which specializes in bringing American lawmakers on fact-finding missions to Israel. And Sheldon stated that it is so important that we emphasize the fact that Israel’s citizens have full democratic rights regardless of race, religion or sexual orientation. Israel is a free society bereft of bias or discrimination.
Sarah Berman, daughter of Birthright founder Michael Steinhardt, was in attendance and asked the Adelsons about their next big plans for the future. Sheldon answered that among his leading projects is Campus Maccabees, an important new project that will focus on defending the Jewish state on campuses across the country, especially given the lies and demonization of Israel that are becoming prevalent in institutions of higher learning.
As the evening came to a close, I wanted to reveal the extent of the Adelsons’ humanitarian activities. I spoke about their persistent work at saving the lives of a young Muslim couple in Afghanistan that was highlighted in The New York Times. The couple faced an honor killing simply because the young woman’s family was against the marriage, seeing as she is Sunni and her suitor was Shiia.
The Adelsons are also dedicated to medical research around the globe, and are the single largest donors to Yad Vashem. Their humanitarian work is unmatched, and they work tirelessly to fulfill the Jewish imperative of perfecting the world as a junior partner in God’s creation.
Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” is the international bestselling author of 30 books. He is the only Rabbi ever to win the London Times Preacher of the Year Competition. A noted global advocate for Israel, he will shortly publish The Israel Warriors Handbook. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.