Sheldon Adelson: A Life of Profound Purpose and Accomplishment

“For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”
The Book of Esther

“Man’s task in the world, according to Judaism,
is to transform fate into destiny; a passive
existence into an active existence; an existence of compulsion, perplexity and muteness into an existence replete with a powerful
will, with resourcefulness, daring and imagination.”

Fate and Destiny, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik

I worked with Sheldon Adelson for more than 30 years as active participants in Boston’s Jewish community. We were collaborators who also became friends.

Shedon never forgot where he came from. When I first met him, he was an important contributor to CJP and many other charities. He believed in the idea of community and had personally benefitted from the generosity of others as a recipient of philanthropy as a child growing up in a desperately poor family.

Sheldon funded charities that touched his heart. He had many friends from his old neighborhood and he never turned them away when they needed help. His help for his friends was always anonymous; no one ever knew the extent of his private acts of loving kindness. He was extraordinarily generous but otherwise not that different from many wealthy men of his generation.

Something about him changed, however, when he visited Israel for the first time. He fell deeply in love with the country, with the Jewish people, and with Miri, the love of his life, who he met and married. It was also about that time that he and Miri developed the idea for the Venetian, casino and hotel and began building one of America’s largest fortunes. In the end, it turned out that what he really found on that trip was the meaning and purpose of his life.

The Power to Transform Fate into Destiny: Birthright

In 2005, Sheldon and Miri and I discussed their priorities for their philanthropy and especially the transformational power of Birthright Israel. I told them that 20,000 young people a year were participating in Birthright but that another 20,000 a year were unable to experience the trip because of a lack of funding. Sheldon understood the power of a trip to Israel. He understood that a trip to Israel was a life changing experience and that that far too many of the next generation were drifting away from Jewish community and the Jewish people. By 2005, many experts, many philanthropists and many Jewish leaders believed that the loss of most of the next generation was inevitable and that the process of complete assimilation was inexorable.

Sheldon and Miri didn’t agree. They would push back against what many considered inevitable. They were just beginning to realize that their wealth meant that they were “in the royal position” with the power to transform “fate” into “destiny” to change the future for the Jewish people. Before he left the room that day, Sheldon told me that he would pay whatever it would cost to send every Birthright applicant to Israel, that no one would be left behind, and that every Jewish young person would have the opportunity to experience the beauty of belonging to the Jewish family and experience the miracle of Israel.

The result of his generosity has been another miracle. Since the Adelsons started their investment, nearly 750,000 young people have had a Birthright experience. Brandeis University’s controlled longitudinal research shows that the impact of the Birthright trip continues to change lives in profound ways even 15 years after returning from Israel.

Sheldon and Miri, through personal gifts of nearly $500,000,000 to Birthright and the example they provided to other donors are responsible for much of that success. They have created a tipping point, strengthening the identity and changing the future for an entire Jewish generation.

No one will ever really know the full impact of Sheldon’s leap of faith, how far out the ripples will spread, how many children will be raised Jewishly, how many rabbis and scholars will have been inspired, how many donors will follow his lead, how many Jewish leaders will emerge to carry the burden and the glory of Jewish leadership into the future “from generation to generation.”

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Sheldon and Miri’s commitment to Birthright has literally changed the future, transforming “passive existence into an active existence; an existence of compulsion, perplexity and muteness into an existence replete with a powerful will, with resourcefulness, daring and imagination.”

Powerful Will, Resourcefulness, Daring and Imagination: A Dream of Israel at Peace with her Neighbors

Sheldon’s love of the Jewish people and his desire to transform “fate” into “destiny” developed into a powerful political agenda focused on the safety, security and peace of Israel. He had other political interests. He wrote opinion pieces favoring a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. He and Miri supported drug treatment programs and contributed hundreds of millions to medical research and Holocaust remembrance. Sheldon and I didn’t agree on everything; we had differences of political opinion on many issues. But when it came to the future of the Jewish people and our love for Israel, Sheldon and Miri shared with many of us a desire for and commitment to a strong and prosperous Israel with unbreakable ties to the Diaspora. Support for Israel was at the center of their political agenda, the primary reason for their political contributions, their constant focus, and the closest issue to their hearts.

Israel had for most of its modern existence lived in a sea of hatred, surrounded by enemies sworn to her destruction since the day of her birth in 1948, broken only by a cold peace with Egypt and Jordan. Until this last year, the idea of a more general peace with the Muslim Arab world was a distant dream, a fantasy. As late as 2016 Secretary of State John Kerry said that “there will be no advanced and separate peace with the Arab world without the Palestinian process and Palestinian peace. Everybody needs to understand that.”

Yet, he and all the other “experts” were wrong. Sheldon knew that and was the key to proving that the experts were wrong. By the time Sheldon passed away four new Arab countries had agreed to normalize relations with Israel, and others are on the way bringing with it the possibility of real peace for Israel and the Middle East. Many hands were involved in the making of this miraculous peace but I believe that it was the persistent, focused, political pressure that Sheldon and Miri brought to bear that made this process the highest possible priority for the last four years.
It may well have been their political engagement that marked a tipping point that made the peace possible.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Sheldon and Miri’s commitment to Israel has literally changed the future, transforming “passive existence into an active existence; an existence of compulsion, perplexity and muteness into an existence replete with a powerful will, with resourcefulness, daring and imagination.”

There are many good things that have been said about Sheldon, about his generosity, his kindness to his friends, his many charities, support for the Adelson Educational Campus and generous funding for neurological and cancer research.

But what he should be remembered for, the lesson that he leaves for our people and for future generations, is that there is no goal too distant, no dream too impossible that that it can’t be achieved.

I believe that future generations of Jewish grandchildren, living Jewish lives will have been told a story by their grandparents. They will have been told that their grandparents had nearly forgotten the beauty of our Jewish tradition until Sheldon Adelson made their trip to Israel possible, rescuing the Jewish story to be told to future generations.

I pray that this moment in Jewish history will be remembered by future generations of Israelis as the tipping point moment when Israel’s isolation finally ended and peace, the impossible dream, became possible and perhaps they will also remember the role that Sheldon’s faith and his “powerful will, resourcefulness, daring, and imagination” played in helping turn the dream of peace into the reality of peace.

Sheldon Adelson was born in 1933 in terrible poverty. By the time he died in 2021 he had achieved great wealth, power and influence. He came to understand that his great resources entailed great responsibility for the future of the Jewish people and for Israel. He assumed responsibility for the fate of our people. His memory is and always will be a blessing for the whole house of Israel.

About the Author
Barry Shrage served as President of CJP- Greater Boston’s Jewish Federation from 1987 to 2017. He is now Professor of the Practice in the Hornstein Program and the Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University. Throughout his 50 year career Barry focused on strengthening Jewish identity and engaging future generations through Jewish education, deepening connections between American Jews and Israel and her people and developing strong communities that care for the most vulnerable in society. All views expressed are Barry’s own and not necessarily those of Brandeis University or CJP
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