Sheldon Adelson: Jewish giant, American colossus

Sheldon was generous, a supernova of Jewish giving, earning his place among history’s most legendary Jewish philanthropists.

Miriam and Sheldon Adelson attend a cornerstone-laying ceremony for the Health and Medical Sciences School building, named after them, at Ariel University (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
Miriam and Sheldon Adelson attend a cornerstone-laying ceremony for the Health and Medical Sciences School building, named after them, at Ariel University
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
There was rarely a time when I saw Sheldon Adelson that I did not kiss him on the cheek in greeting, as he did the same in return. There was rarely a time when I greeted him with my wife, Debbie, that he did not tease her in some way as to the whereabouts of our nine children. And there was never a time every Friday when I called to wish him “Shabbat Shalom” that he did not take the call, however busy, and warmly return the greeting.
That was Sheldon Adelson: corporate titan, billionaire businessman, world’s foremost Jewish philanthropist, but through and through, the warmest man with the biggest heart.
Hearing the news that Sheldon had passed away, even while I knew he had been ill, was shocking. How can a man who was larger than life have been snatched away by death? How could anything have conquered Sheldon Adelson, a living legend?
As the day progressed, I grew increasingly depressed and morose. My wife Debbie summed it up: “I can’t believe that we’re never going to see Sheldon again.”
Neither can I.
Sheldon Adelson was an American colossus, a visionary who transformed Las Vegas and Macau into some of the most visited places on Earth. Together with his wife, Miri, he envisioned the re-creation of the world’s most serene city, Venice, right in the sands of the Nevada Desert. He dreamed big for Israel, believing that the United States could and should recognize the tiny desert nation as its most important ally. By the time of his death on Monday at the age of 87, he had realized his dream. Only a Sheldon Adelson could have foreseen Israel rising as a global technological and intelligence superpower, becoming the most indispensable global friend of the United States of America.
And Sheldon was generous, a supernova of Jewish giving, earning his place among history’s most legendary Jewish philanthropists such as the Rothschilds and Montefiores.
As a birthday gift, Debbie and I once bought him a silver tzedaka (charity) box. As he opened the gift, he told me that when he was a child his father, a Boston taxi driver, used to come home at night and put coins in the JNF pushke (charity box). Sheldon asked him what he was doing.
“Giving money to the poor,” his father replied.
“But we’re poor,” Sheldon responded.”
His father said, “There is always someone poorer.”
The lesson stuck. By the time Sheldon’s genius and industriousness led him to create the integrated resorts industry – synthesizing entertainment, exhibition and convention facilities – he was giving billions to causes of every stripe: medical research and hospitals, clinics fighting drug addiction, America’s wounded warriors, Holocaust education and remembrance, and of course, organizations dedicated to protecting his beloved Israel. To Birthright Israel alone he contributed – together with Miri – nearly half a billion dollars, affording young Jews the world over the privilege his own father did not have the funds to realize, a chance to see the Promised Land.
TO THE EXTENT that he gained huge influence as America’s most generous political benefactor, he leveraged that influence to promote American interests and protect the Jewish people. Although Miri was born in Israel, her mother’s family had been largely annihilated in Poland during the Holocaust. Sheldon never forgot the lesson. The Jews must be strong if they are to survive and flourish.
All this is already quite well-known about the public Sheldon Adelson, including the moving story he told about how he had worn his late father’s shoes upon his own first visit to Israel so that an impoverished taxi driver who never had the financial resources to witness the Jewish state could at least have his shoes trod where the patriarchs walked.
But what is not well-known – and what impressed me the most – was the private Sheldon Adelson; the man who, whenever I traveled with him, was always holding his wife’s hand; the tycoon who would interrupt meetings to call Miri and sing romantic tunes; the business magnate whose lock screen on his phone was of his two young sons, Adam and Matan, at a tender age. I watched how in meetings, however critical, he would never fail to take his sons’ and daughters’ phone calls.
Sheldon Adelson was, above all else, a family man who adored his wife and children like few I have witnessed.
And he was a loyal and loving friend. Once, after a professional setback, when I was licking my wounds and feeling low, he called me and said, “Friendship is all about shared values. You and I will always be friends because we believe in important things.”
Some billionaires only have billionaire friends. But at Sheldon’s birthday parties and family celebrations, the wealthy guests were the exception rather than the rule. He surrounded himself with communal activists whose work he supported: doctors and nurses whose practices he funded, rabbis and teachers whose educational efforts he supported, and artists and musicians whose creativity he helped to realize. And always, there were his children’s friends.
I have worked as a rabbi for more than 30 years. But seldom have I met a man like Sheldon who oozed Jewish pride from every pore. He was traditional rather than Orthodox, sentimental about his faith rather than a strict adherent. And yet to Sheldon, Jewish pride was an uncompromising article of faith, an absolute religion. Sometimes I would look at him in awe wondering how one man could so devote himself to the protection and needs of his people.
His office was a turnstile of world leaders seeking his wisdom and advice, and he was a Jewish light unto the nations.
I ONCE WALKED alongside his wheelchair-scooter as he departed his office toward a waiting car. He was flanked by security as he whizzed through the Venetian lobby, guests of the hotel staring on in awe at the legendary entrepreneur. To a humble rabbi like me, it was an awesome display of might and power. But to Sheldon it was just another opportunity to arrive at his car and insist I get in with him to hitch a ride alongside.
In Miri, he found his perfect soul-mate, someone equally motivated to protect Israel in the highest ideals of American love for human rights-abiding democracies and free societies.
When Miri read in The New York Times of an Islamic couple in Afghanistan whom the Times had dubbed the Afghani Romeo and Juliet, and who were threatened with murder for dating outside their tribe, Miri undertook a years-long and successful effort to help save their lives and deliver them from danger. Sheldon watched, enraptured.
“My wife,” he told an influential person on the other end of the phone whom he had called to enlist their help, “is a hopeless romantic. We must save the couple’s lives.”
It sickens me to see fools on the Internet who are criticizing Sheldon in death for his political engagement when those critics know nothing of how he lived to see Jerusalem recognized as Israel’s eternal capital; how he despised Iran for its genocidal plans against his people; and how he pledged himself to a moral foreign policy opposing every American enemy who murdered our troops, in whose ranks he had himself once served. His political contributions – which were utterly dwarfed by his philanthropy – were dedicated to upholding the America-Israel alliance, protecting innocent life, and ensuring that a second Holocaust would remain an impossibility.
It is a sign of what a special man Sheldon was that my children called me, one after the other, to say how much they will miss him and how tenderly they remembered him. It is a great comfort to know that his wife, Dr. Miriam Adelson, his full partner in business and philanthropy, will continue their shared legacy as the greatest Jewish philanthropists of our times.
Two years ago, at his 85th birthday celebrations in Nevada, Sheldon arranged for his assembled friends to visit the Grand Canyon, a few hours’ drive from his Las Vegas home. Little did we all realize how symbolic the visit would be. For Sheldon Adelson would leave a chasm just as large in the fabric of global Jewish living. That was Sheldon Adelson: an American colossus, a Jewish giant, utterly irreplaceable.
May Sheldon’s memory be an eternal blessing and may God comfort his wife, his children, and the entire nation of Israel.
The writer, whom The Washington Post called ‘the most famous Rabbi in America,’ is the founder of the World Values Network and the best-selling author of more than 30 books, including The Israel Warrior. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @RabbiShmuley