The Apotheosis of Sheldon Adelson
To his critics, Sheldon Adelson is an all-knowing, all-powerful, near mythical figure. A man capable of bending governments to his will, coercing them into recognizing capitals, moving embassies, and terminating international agreements. He is the force behind the election of presidents and the appointment of prime ministers. A man graced with the capacity to spin lead into gold, he can even cast a spell over hundreds of thousands of young Birthright participants to embrace a hard-right ideology on Israel.
Call it the apotheosis of Sheldon Adelson.
To those who know him, however, Sheldon Adelson is simply a man, one of incredibly humble beginnings, whose irreducible essence is an unequaled passion to champion his people and an unshakable will to safeguard their future. A man who will not rest until he has seen Israel prosper despite its enemies, triumph over its adversaries, and serve as a focus of inspiration for Jewish youth the world over.
In a few weeks time, Sheldon will be celebrating an important birthday (he actually shares the date with Barack Obama). It is appropriate on such an occasion to recognize the virtues of a man who has arisen as one of the most important Jewish philanthropists in modern times and a guiding force behind the rejuvenation of Jewish identity.
I have met few Jewish men or women in my life who breathe in Israel so deeply. Even Sheldon’s most vociferous political opponents, who believe he wields near-divine malevolent influence, admit that he leverages that influence almost entirely with regard to policies that promote Israel. To be sure, they disagree with his positions. They either do not want America to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, or they want Israel to give away Biblical lands like Hebron, or they want Trump to be more even-handed between the dictatorship of Mahmoud Abbas and the democracy over which Benjamin Netanyahu presides. But it’s always about Israel and not about himself.
Where have we seen one of the foremost contributors to politics in the world dedicate his influence to the interests of his people over and above any personal consideration?
A man who has the ear of world leaders is accused of flexing political muscle not for his own ends but to protect the Jews and promote the ancient homeland of the Jewish people.
Sheldon and his wife Miriam have contributed close to half a billion dollars to Birthright Israel. It was a project started not by them but by my friend Michael Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman. And while they have been honored by the organization, nowhere does their name appear on anything permanent related to Birthright. Rather, as Sheldon has explained many times, his taxi-driver father who struggled to support his family never had the funds to visit the Jewish state and the Adelsons wanted to make sure that every young Jewish man and women on earth would not suffer a similar fate.
Sheldon famously wore his father’s shoes upon his first visit to Israel so that his father, who was no longer alive, could join him in his first steps in the Holy Land. I thought of that story when I watched the recent viral video of a young Jewish woman named Katie Fenster waiting till the last day of her Birthright trip to criticize the organization and the trip and announce she was going to join Breaking the Silence on a trip to Hebron.
Fenster gave the media two interesting quotes. The first was, “Judaism is about asking questions. It seems so surprising that they would be upset at us for asking questions.” The second was “[Birthright] is not just a free trip, it’s not an apolitical organization. It has explicitly political goals. Its donors are all far right-wing extremists like Sheldon Adelson.”
Yes, Katie. Judaism is indeed about asking questions. I led two Birthright trips and fielded hundreds of questions on every subject under the sun, from politics, to religion, to relationships, to Jewish history. But there is a difference between asking questions and driving a political agenda.
As to the second point, Judaism is about gratitude. Moses is not allowed to punish even inanimate objects like the Nile River and the dust of Egypt because they saved his life. Those two plagues had to be performed by his brother Aaron.
You take Sheldon Adelson’s money to go on a free trip to Israel and then you trash him to the media? Seriously? Have you no decency? Where are your manners?
Are you aware that Sheldon grew up in the most extreme poverty? Are you aware that he faced virulent antisemitism as a boy in Boston and vowed that as a result he would commit his life to protecting his people? Are you aware that his own father died without seeing Israel because he could not afford the plane ticket? And are you aware, finally, that as a result Sheldon and his wife Miriam committed their wealth to providing free trips to the ancient Jewish homeland so that no Jew should go through life without having seen it?
And contemplating that fact, could you not be just a tad more grateful?
Michael Steinhardt famously reacted to Birthright protesters by shooting his middle finger at them at a Birthright gala in New York last April. Tactless? Perhaps. But for some of the major funders of Birthright it captures a certain sentiment. If you don’t want to accept Birthright’s generosity, by all means reject it. But to accept it and have zero appreciation, well isn’t that the very definition of being entitled?
The precedent of directing hundreds of millions of dollars without his name attached to a charitable project is something Sheldon pursues again and again, most notably with his medical philanthropy, a passion he enjoys given that his wife Miriam is a physician and addiction specialist. And when I asked Miriam why she and Sheldon do so much of their charitable work anonymously, she told me that they do it for the people and never for the credit.
From what I have witnessed, Sheldon’s greatest passion is his family, including two young sons whose birth inspired the creation of the Adelson Campus in Las Vegas because Sheldon and Miri, though not orthodox, were insistent that their children attend a Jewish day school and have a solid Jewish education.
Jewish history has been distinguished by a predilection to lose our most distinguished sons and daughters. Secularism and assimilation have hollowed out some of the core fiber of the Jewish people as many of the world’s wealthiest and most accomplished Jews gradually drift away from Jewish tradition. Whereas, say, Mormons have to tithe first and foremost to their Church, about 80 percent of all modern Jewish philanthropy is directed to mainstream and secular universities, museums, hospitals, and other charities. Worthy? Absolutely. But does it prioritize Jewish continuity? Not exactly.
And that’s where Sheldon has made his greatest mark. He may be one of the richest men in the world, but his people have always been his priority. Sheldon and Miriam support countless mainstream secular charities. But they have always unapologetically prioritized Israel and the Jewish people as their greatest passion.
Perhaps the most memorable thing about visiting the US Capitol is when you look up through the oculus of the dome and see the beautiful fresco painted in the rotunda in 1865 by Greek-Italian artist Constantino Brumidi. The unforgettable painting is called “The Apotheosis of Washington,” capturing a mythical moment when Washington ascends to god-like stature and takes his place in the heavens with the goddess Victoria and the Goddess of Liberty by his side. America is, of course, a religious country and clearly does not deify its founder. “In God We Trust” refers squarely to the Creator and not to America’s founding father. So what is the meaning of the painting? There are individuals who come to define a moment, an era, a hinge of history so completely that humans wish to elevate them to the stature of gods.
Not so Judaism, whose greatest prophet Moses is referred to simply as the “servant of God.” Ever since then, the great Jewish leaders who have followed have distinguished themselves by seeking to simply be servants of their people.
On the occasion of a significant milestone in his life it is time that that a grateful community come together to proclaim Sheldon Adelson — one of the foremost Jewish benefactors in history — an inspired, dedicated, and worthy servant of Israel and the Jewish people.
Happy Birthday Sheldon. May God grant you long life, abundant health, and endless prosperity.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America” is the international best-selling author of 32 books, including his just published work Lust for Love, co-authored with Pamela Anderson. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.