(photo credit: The Jewish Values Network, Courtesy)
There is something unique about Sheldon that is a 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, so
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 50,000
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 is.
Not since the Rothschilds and Moses Montefiore has
one 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 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 Metropolitan Museum of Art and
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
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 toward 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
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 80, 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 resort 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 build, 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 40s, 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.