The Jewish world has lost one of its most prolific funders with the passing of Sheldon Adelson, whose business empire spanned continents and whose $35 billion personal fortune ranked him #38 on the Forbes list worldwide.

At times outspoken and controversial, Adelson, age 87, had been receiving treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Philanthropy

Though Jews are disproportionately generous in charitable giving, less than 10 percent of Jewish mega-donations go to Jewish or Israeli causes.

Sheldon Adelson broke that mold. Together with his wife Miriam, the Adelson Family Charitable Trust donates $200 million annually to Jewish and Israeli causes, including:

  • $400 million total to Birthright, which has sent 600,000 young Jews with free trips to Israel
  • $25 million to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum
  • $50 million to Adelson Educational Campus, the largest Jewish school in Las Vegas
  • $20 million to open a new medical school at Israel’s Ariel University
  • The Adelson School of Entrepreneurship at IDC Herzliya college

Adelson credited this ethos to his father, who “kept a charity box for the poor in our house.” Charitable giving, he said, “is my humanitarian legacy. We’re prepared to pay billions.”

Another hefty chunk of Adelson’s donations went to U.S. political campaigns. An estimated $340 million went to Republican candidates in the past few years, making him the largest individual donor in the country.

Adelson also influenced the political milieu through his ownership of media outlets, including the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the largest circulation daily in Nevada and one of America’s top-25 newspapers. In Israel, after an unsuccessful attempt to purchase an existing newspaper, Adelson started his own, Israel Hayom, which is now the country’s largest-circulation daily.

Adelson was unabashedly pro-Israel, and was hawkish about issues relating to Jerusalem, the Palestinians, and Iran. In 2013, Adelson suggested sending a nuclear missile to the Iranian desert – “that doesn't hurt a soul, maybe a couple of rattlesnakes and scorpions” – as a message to the Ayatollah’s radical regime to abandon its nuclear weapons program.

Sheldon and Miriam Adelson at a Birthright event with former Israeli President Shimon Peres. (credit: GPO)

Personal Journey

Sheldon Adelson was born in 1933 in Boston to a low-income Jewish family. His father, of Ukrainian and Lithuanian ancestry, drove a taxi. His mother, an immigrant from England (whose father was a Welsh coal miner), ran a knitting shop.

Adelson took to entrepreneurship early in life and at age 12 borrowed $200 from his uncle for a license to sell newspapers. At age 16, he borrowed $10,000 from his uncle to start a candy-vending-machine business.

Through his first marriage, Adelson adopted three children. His son Mitchell died of a drug overdose, leading Adelson to crusade against legalized marijuana, considering it a “gateway drug” to the cocaine and heroin that claimed his son’s life.

In 1991, Adelson met his second wife, Miriam, on a blind date. A child of Polish refugees, she grew up in Israel and achieved success as chief internist in the emergency room of Tel Aviv's Rokach Hospital. She shared her husband’s opposition to drugs and founded a substance abuse clinic.

Serial Entrepreneur

Adelson’s business breakthrough came in 1979 when he created COMDEX, the computer trade show in Las Vegas. The timing was fortuitous, as the personal computer industry – IBM, Apple, Microsoft – was just taking off and COMDEX quickly became the largest trade show in Las Vegas. Adelson later sold it for a personal profit of $500 million.

In 1988, Adelson and his partners purchased the legendary Sands Casino in Las Vegas, marking the start of a deep foray into resort development. In 1991, while on honeymoon with Miriam in Venice, Italy, Adelson got an idea which later materialized as the $1.5 billion, 4,000-room Venetian casino in Las Vegas – complete with canals, gondolas and singing gondoliers.

Adelson later built China's first Las Vegas-style casino on the island of Macau, the center of a massive Asian gambling market – featuring a half-scale copy of the Eiffel Tower. Adelson’s vision continued to expand and in 2010 he opened the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore at a cost of $5.5 billion – the third-most expensive building in the world.

The spectacular Marina Bay Sands in Singapore is known as the “most-Instagrammed hotel in the world.”

In 2014, Adelson was named to CNBC's list of transformational business "leaders, icons and rebels… who have had the greatest influence, sparked the biggest changes, and caused the most disruption in business over the past quarter century."

Adelson explained his philosophy of entrepreneurship: “Businesses are like buses. You stand on a corner and you don’t like where the first bus is going? Wait ten minutes and take another. Don’t like that one? They’ll just keep coming. There’s no end to buses or businesses.”

Once, when his business holdings suffered a 93 percent drop in value, Adelson said: "So I lost $25 billion. I started out with zero... [There is] no such thing as fear, not to an entrepreneur.” He described an entrepreneur as possessing “courage, faith in yourself, and above all, even when you fail, to learn from failure and get up and try again.” (Within two years, Adelson’s business had recovered.)

I never thought about becoming wealthy. What really motivated me was to try to accomplish something.

Despite great financial success, Adelson claimed not to be motivated by money. “I never thought about becoming wealthy,” he said. “It never crossed my mind. What really motivated me was to try to accomplish something.”

Adelson’s gift of $70 million to Birthright – in honor of Israel’s 70th anniversary – solidified his leading position in Jewish philanthropy. “Before Israel was founded, my father always said he wished there was a place where Jewish people could live. He always wanted to go, but by the time I could send him, he was too old and too sick. I don’t want any kid to say they were too old or too sick to visit Israel.”

Over the centuries, great philanthropists like Rothschild and Montefiore have dedicated themselves to meeting the critical needs of the Jewish people. In our generation, Sheldon Adelson carried that tradition proudly. May his memory be blessed.