This last Monday, March 14, we hosted the world’s foremost Jewish philanthropists, Dr. Miriam and Sheldon Adelson, as guests for 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 anti-Semitism 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 anti-Semitism that was portrayed in the production. Sheldon’s father always believed that the Jewish people needed a state for themselves where they could live free. 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 his father’s shoes to Israel and wore them on his visit. 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, to which he and Miri are now the single biggest donors.
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 as he grew up. He once told me that his commitment to philanthropy stems in part from watching his father always put coins in the JNF tzedaka box. “Why are you giving money away, Dad,” he asked his father, “when we ourselves are so poor?” “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 who were members of the Alexander hassidic movement. Miriam’s mother’s family were murdered in the Holocaust and she lost many of her relatives.
But as a Zionist, she herself moved to Palestine before the war. 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 in her class got to experience the embrace of a grandparent or often even an uncle or aunt because they had all been murdered by the Nazis.
As the topic 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 serious as a physical threat, seeing as how the spread of anti-Semitism and the BDS movement have become so severe. She said that in the end the Jewish people would of course prevail, but that it would take time and dedicated effort.
Sheldon spoke of the importance of the Jewish people holding on to their identity and traditions, and passing 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 Kiddush on Friday nights with their children and grandchildren to acknowledge Shabbat.
The conversation turned to the Birthright Israel program. The Adelsons are the biggest donors to the program, among the many charities they support. They 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 over 500,000 Jewish youth 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 for 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 or 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 what their next big plans were for the future were.
Sheldon answered that among his leading projects is Campus Maccabees, an important new project that would focus on defending the Jewish state on campuses across the country, especially given the lies and demonization of the Jewish state that are becoming prevalent in institutions of higher learning. Training college students in Israel advocacy and working with the many groups already involved in speaking out for the Jewish state on college campuses, the Adelsons plan to combat the rising anti-Semitism and demonization of Israel that has hitherto gone largely unchecked on college campuses.
As the evening came to a close I wanted to reveal the extent of the Adelson’s 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 Shi’ite. I emphasized to the crowd how dedicated the Adelsons are to medical research around the globe, Holocaust memory, as the single largest donors to Yad Vashem, and all that they do for individuals in need.
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.The author, “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.
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