Apotheosis of Sheldon Adelson
By Shmuley Boteach
July 9, 2018
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
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
And contemplating that fact, could you not be just a tad
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
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
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.