What Made Sheldon Adelson Tick?
The secular new year coincided with the very first Yahrzeit of that giant of Jewish vision and philanthropy, Sheldon Adelson.
As Sheldon was a dear friend whom I mourn and miss, and as I have written much about him since his passing, I wanted to pen this particular column as a stream-of-consciousness exercise that focuses on his absence.
What has the world Jewish community and the State of Israel been missing since Sheldon was lost to us a year ago? How is his absence felt?
I would say this.
MORE THAN ANYTHING SHELDON REPRESENTED UNAPOLOGETIC JEWISH PRIDE. SHELDON ADELSON WAS JEWISH IDENTITY PERSONIFIED.
More than anything Sheldon represented unapologetic Jewish pride. Sheldon Adelson was Jewish identity personified. He made zero compromises with those who believed that Jews should keep their heads down and not make waves. He believed that to be a Jew was a privilege, an honor, a responsibility, something to be fought for and defended at all times.
Sheldon was, in his core, a fighter for the Jewish people, the ferocity of which our people have rarely encountered in modern times.
As America’s foremost political contributor, along with his wife Miri, he received significant criticism from people on the left who said that using political muscle on Israel’s behalf—say to pressure a president to move the American Embassy to Jerusalem—could only excite antisemitism.
Sheldon scoffed at such notions, dismissing them out of hand. What was the point of wealth or influence if it were not deployed in the service of a great cause? And what greater cause could there be that the survival and flourishing of the nation that gave the world God, the Ten Commandments, the Bible, the belief that all humans are created equal in the image of God, and the modern State of Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East?
He found those who would not stand up for Israel and their Jewishness weak and pathetic. The Jewish people had every right to exercise their influence for noble causes and righteous interests. And as America’s most reliable ally in the world, Israel’s security was directly related to America’s.
Sheldon was not an orthodox or halakhically-practicing Jew, in the strict sense of the words.
Yet, in other ways he was ultra-orthodox.
If being an observant Jew means believing in the destiny of the Jewish people and safeguarding a vulnerable nation from harm and valuing the infinite worth of every member of our nation, then Sheldon was off-the-charts religious.
He was a fanatic when it came to a proud Jewish identity and had little respect for any Jewish men and women—especially those who are accomplished and high-profile—who denied it. He and Miri became the single biggest supporters of Birthright Israel not only because it exposed young Jews to the Jewish state—although that was their primary reason—but also because demographic studies showed that those who attended Birthright were more committed to finding a Jewish spouse and establishing a Jewish home.
Jewish continuity was Sheldon’s lifeblood. Politicians of every party knew that support from Sheldon Adelson came down to two things. Do you want America to flourish economically, socially, and militarily as never before? And do you care about the security and survival of America’s foremost ally, Israel? Do you recognize the genocidal government of Iran, with its stated purpose of bringing about a second holocaust, as evil and will you resist that evil or will you surrender to it?
I have met few men who could care less than Sheldon for constant press attacks against him for using his influence to protect Israel. He wore the criticism as a badge of honor.
There was a mystical attachment between Sheldon and his Jewishness that belied any rational attempt at explanation.
In his introduction to the Hebrew Edition of “Moses and Monotheism,” Sigmund Freud wrote of his Jewish identity as consisting of deep dark mystical feelings, “the more powerful the less they could be expressed in words.”
When thinking of Sheldon that sentiment often comes back to me.
How do we explain how a man who did not go to a Yeshiva, or visit Israel until much later in life, developed an attachment to Judaism and Israel that would transform both? How do we explain how a man whose immediate family was protected from the Holocaust in Boston would nevertheless go on to become, along with his wife Miri, the single biggest supporter of Holocaust memory in the world? And how do we explain how a man who served as a soldier in the United States Army could have the vision of understanding that a strong IDF in Israel could directly protect American interests from Iran and other terrorist foes?
I submit that having known Sheldon and having tried, on countless occasions, to fathom the depths of his commitment to the Jewish people and Israel, that it remains a powerful mystery, “the more powerful the less they could be expressed in words.”
But there is one ingredient above all that explains it. His wife Miri was a game-changer. Miriam Adelson shares one pivotal virtue with her late husband that is positively historic: She is quite simply the proudest Jew you will ever meet. That Sheldon and Miri found each other was providential and would change the landscape of Jewish life as we know it. It was not until he met Miri that Sheldon became, with his wife, the world’s foremost Jewish philanthropist.
To be sure, Sheldon was already drawn to Israel. He wanted to marry an Israeli wife. Little did he realize that he’d marry the living personification of the Israeli woman—brilliant, tough, totally committed, and nearly invincible.
On one of his birthdays I asked Sheldon if his father, Arthur, and his mother, Sarah were the principal influences in his life to become a Zionist before he met Miri. On that day I had given Sheldon a beautiful tzedakah box to keep on his desk and he told me the story of how his father, a taxi driver, had taught him to put a few pennies in the “pushky” every day. “And why should we give charity to the poor, Dad, when we’re so poor ourselves?” “Because,” his father said, “there is always someone poorer.”
There can be no question that having a father who gives his paltry few pennies to the Jewish national fund, and oozes Jewish pride, is going to impact his children, and Sheldon always cherished and spoke fondly of his parents’ legacy.
But most of all, Sheldon spoke of Miri.
He never stopped talking about Miri and how she was the perfect partner and wife. Indeed, I witnessed Sheldon singing to Miri over the phone on many occasions about his love for her.
A marriage like that, where you transcend just being spouses and instead become soul-mates can take the marital union to heights scarcely imaginable.
Those heights of marriage to Miri—their shared commitment to enlivening the Jewish nation politically, religiously, and culturally—electrified the world. Together, Sheldon and Miriam Adelson became living paragons of how wealth can be translated into commitment and how one marriage can breathe new life into a nation that experienced a genocide just 75 years ago.
The Talmud says that “our forefather Jacob never died. Since his children are alive [continuing his legacy], he too is alive.”
We miss you Sheldon. I miss you every day. It’s the reason that on January 20 at Carnegie Hall we are awarding your memory with the “Light of the Jewish People Award,” which you personally presented to Elie Wiesel at our gala in Times Square in 2015, a year before the great man died. You will be only the second person to ever receive it and it will be presented by Elisha Wiesel, Elie’s son.
But we see you Sheldon in everything Miri does for America, the Jewish people, and Israel.
We will never forget you.