“When parents don’t care about Israel, their children won’t either,” says the Zionist American philanthropist, who passed away on Jan 11.
By: Zvika Klein
On a Friday morning, slightly more than six months ago, we convened a transatlantic Zoom call. There we were, the deputy editor of Makor Rishon, Orly Goldklang from Ofra, myself from Jerusalem, and Sheldon and Dr. Miriam Adelson from their house in Malibu, Calif.
The physical distance did not prevent us from carrying on a profound, even moving conversation. It was summer, the time of the year that traditionally brought to Israel tens of thousands of Birthright Israel participants, but this June was different, as we were in between coronavirus lockdowns.
Normally every year, young Jewish adults come from all parts of the world on a free 10-day educational trip to Israel, as part of the notion that every Jew deserves to get to know the country. While Birthright Israel’s activity was suspended due to COVID-19, we wanted to author a festive article that would mark the 20th anniversary of the national-Jewish enterprise established by Israel’s government and Jewish philanthropists across the globe.
In addition to being the publishers of Makor Rishon, the Adelsons are also the largest donors of Birthright, with a donation nearing $0.5 billion. Since the article covered the founders and major donors of Birthright, we included in it only part of the interview with the Adelsons.
Sheldon Adelson passed away on Jan. 11. In his honor, we are publishing the full version of the interview, which did not include politics or economics. Rather, it focused on a topic that was inseparable from his personality: Jewish identity.
Q: How did you become involved with Birthright?
“We were looking to invest in projects that are meaningful for the Jewish people,” replied Miriam. She added that several years after the launch of Birthright, they met with Charles Bronfman, a businessman and co-founder of Birthright, who asked them to donate.
“He wanted a small amount of money. I remember Sheldon told him, ‘Of course, we will give,’ but when Bronfman left, Sheldon told me, ‘I don’t know why he hadn’t asked for more. I would have given him more!’
We later heard from one of the founders, Michael Steinhardt, that every year, there are 10,000 young Jewish adults on the waiting list and cannot go to Israel because there isn’t enough money. We felt it was inconceivable that a young Jewish adult would not be able to go to Israel, so we decided to fund the entire waiting list. The waiting list then became 20,000 people, so we subsidized them, too.”
We asked Mr. Adelson to tell us about his father, who never made it to Israel.
“My father had always dreamed of going to Israel but never realized his dream, he was born in Lithuania, where he suffered very much for being Jewish. He always thought there ought to be a place in the world where Jews can live without being beaten, whipped or shot at, but as regular citizens.”
Sheldon’s father, Arthur, was a taxi driver. He could not afford to fly to Israel.
“Years later, when the State of Israel was established, no one thought of Israel as a vacation destination,” recounted Sheldon. “Israel was perceived as a place where people live in tents. By the time I had enough money and wanted to send my father to Israel, he said he was too old and sick to go. It frustrated me. I wanted to make sure all the people on Birthright’s waiting list will not end up like my father, old and regretful they never went to Israel. I wanted Miri and me to help them and send anyone who wanted on a visit to Israel. The waiting lists were growing long, but it only made us happy. Everyone who came back from Israel told about it to their friends, with more and more young people wanting to go.”
Targeting the opponents
The Adelsons have two sons, both of whom participated in Birthright. (Sheldon also has three children from his previous marriage, including one who has passed away. Miriam has two daughters from her previous marriage).
Miriam: “Our sons visited Israel numerous times. We took them to Israel already when they were several months old. But even though they have been to Israel so many times, my son, Adam, called me when he was on Birthright to say, ‘Mommy, it’s a life-changing visit.’ I asked him how come, because he had been in Israel dozens of times and we often hired Birthright’s guides to take us on tours and have been to all the places Adam went to with Birthright. He told me that the revelation came upon him on Mount Herzl, when they visited the grave of a soldier who was killed at their age, 18 years old. The whole group cried together. Later, they went to Yad Vashem. He told me that he and his friends realized that they are Israel’s soldiers around the world. This had changed his life.”
Q: Your children are at university age. What are the campuses like today for young Jewish people?
Sheldon: “We’ve established the Maccabee Task Force, which fights for the Jews. We started several years ago on six campuses; today we are present in about 100, not only in the United States but also in the Sorbonne in France, Cambridge in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. We fight against anti-Semitism and BDS. We cracked the code of the right way to go about it. We send the student leaders of African, Hispanic and other minority backgrounds to a visit Israel.”
Miriam: “We identify them in advance and propose to them to join our group on a visit to Israel to see how things really are. In each university, we mobilize the people who speak about Israel in the most derogatory way. It’s a fact-checking trip. Many of them tell us afterwards, ‘We’ve been told lies the whole time.’ ”
Sheldon: “Universities where we are present have not passed laws that support banning Israel or BDS. The university in Erwin, California, is probably the most problematic in this respect in the U.S. It passed a law that endorses the ban on Israel, but modified its decision as a result of our efforts in a vote of 16 to 2 against the ban.”
Miriam: “There’s no BDS in any of the campuses on which we’re active. Had we not been there, the laws would have passed.”
Q: Why is it so important for you to invest in Jewish continuity and fight for Israel?
Sheldon: “Why not do, if we are capable of doing? If it weren’t for us, no one would have risen to the challenge. It’s important that we, as Jews, advance our causes and work for more people to join. We donate large amounts of money. We give Birthright between $20 to $30 million a year, but we do more than that. We built a medical school at Ariel University, an entrepreneurship school at IDC Herzliya and many more.”
Miriam: “We feel like partners in a family. I love my family members, which means any Jew, whether from the right or the left. At the same time, I would like to protect my private family. I would like my grandchildren and great-grandchildren to remain Jews. Had we left the campuses’ situation as it was, it would not have been good. Research shows that if you participated in Birthright, your chances of marrying a Jew are 76 percent, and the figure goes down to 42 percent if you are on the waiting list. I did not make up these figures. Brandeis University in the U.S. conducted this research.”
Miriam’s eyes sparkle when she talks about Birthright’s participants. She recites the enterprise’s figures as fluently as the director-general. “At one Birthright event, I was approached by a Brazilian guy. He asked my permission to hug me and said, ‘I never led a Jewish life or felt Jewish. Here, in Caesarea, is the first time I felt Jewish.’ So, if we can do it for our family, why not do it?”
During the call, we, the journalists, used the word “pay,” referring to covering the expenses of sending young Jewish adults to Israel. Adelson commented on our word choice: “We do not regard it as ‘money,’ but as ‘assistance to the Jewish people.’ As Miri said, we are all one family. We are philanthropists who want to give out firstly to our family. We use the money to do things that would benefit the Jewish people.”
Miriam: “When I see American Jews who are not connected to Israel speak derogatively of Israel or seek to ban Israel as part of BDS, my heart aches because they do not know the facts and are full of anger and hatred. I ache for them, but they are still Jews for me. Perhaps their children will understand more. If BDS tells people not to go to Israel, we will give out tours to the young adults and show them the other side.”
Q: Do you think Israel is doing enough to maintain the connection with the world Jewry?
Sheldon: “Israel provides about one-third of Birthright’s budget, which is something. The Israeli Ministry of Diaspora Affairs supports a range of organizations, not ours, but others.” He adds with a wink, “The ministry says that our organizations need no funding because the Adelson family is there to support them.”
Q: What should Israelis know about American Jews or Jews worldwide?
Miriam: “In the early stage of our acquaintance—we got married after 100 days of meeting—we used to go to Jewish events. I kept feeling that the guests were giving money only to low-income families to keep their qualms at bay. With time, I was surprised to realize the amount of time that American Jews invest in Israel. They dedicate time to meetings and thinking together about how they can help Russian immigrants, for example. They invest so much time. Personally, I appreciate time more than money. Most American Jews love Israel.”
A follow-up on Judaism
Another organization “adopted” and showered with many tens of millions of dollars by the Adelson family is IAS, the Israeli-American Council, which, within a few years, has become the umbrella organization of Israeli communities in the United States. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis live across America. They were never connected via any association, with their children often reluctant to connect with their Judaism.
“IAS started as a small organization, but today is present across the U.S.,” says Miriam. “It runs programs for school children, afterschool educational programs, adult programs and more. It just keeps growing. When it became well-established, we deemed it was the right time to connect the Israelis communities living in the U.S. with the Jewish community who does not speak Hebrew. Miriam recalls, with a smile, how “Sheldon took up Hebrew with one of the IAC courses during the COVID-19 pandemic. He learned to spell Shabbat, so I’m optimistic about his Hebrew.”
She describes how the life experience of Israelis in the United States has transformed. “When I arrived in America, no one understood my jokes. To this date, I still have just a few good friends here, whom I could count with one hand. However, today we feel stronger. We’re no longer the ‘ones who fell behind.’ We’re proud of being Israelis.”
Sheldon: “American Jews were not passionate about Israel, because the Jewish organizations were dealing with other issues: the Anti-Defamation League was busy with anti-Semitism, and the federations were concerned with raising funds in the Jewish Community Centers. AIPAC was the only organization lobbying for Israel. The focus of American Jews was on their U.S. communities, not on Israel. With IAC and enterprises like Birthright, people pay more attention to being Jewish in Israel and Jewish community life in Israel.”
Q: Your generation witnessed the Six-Day War and is closer to the Holocaust. Will the younger generation of Jewish philanthropists donate to Israel? Many of them seem to prefer the tikkun olam [‘making the world a better place’] causes.
Sheldon: “They are passionate about Israel, and so are our children. When parents don’t care about Israel, their children won’t either. What makes young people passionate about Israel, in my opinion, is participating in a Birthright trip. There, they discover Jews from other parts of the U.S. and other countries.”
Q: Will your children or grandchildren make aliyah to Israel? How will you feel if it happens? Will you be happy or prefer that they continue your mission in the United States?
Miriam: “My oldest granddaughter is 20 years old now. She lives in Palo Alto in Silicon Valley. She graduated from high school and served in the military. She now wants to go to university in Israel, which makes me very happy. Our sons go to college. The older one, who studies mechanical engineering, told me he wanted to volunteer to military service and help the IDF develop weapons. Will they do it? I’ve decided I’m not going to ask them because you can never know what will happen. What if I pressure them to go to Israel and something happens while they are in the army? Will I live my entire life feeling … ‘You need to flow with the stream, as they say in Israel. We helped build a Jewish school here. Our children studied there and now my grandchildren go there. I would be happy if they decide to make aliyah to Israel, but I will never tell them to go. I will be happy with whatever decision they make.”
Q: Where do you see Birthright in 20 years?
“I hope I live that long,” smiles Miriam. “100,000 Jews are born every year worldwide. I would like to see 70,000 to 80,000 visiting Israel with Birthright every year.”
Sheldon: “I would have liked to see them doing a follow-up on the program and their Judaism. I would want them to embrace their Jewish identity and continue their love for Israel. It is no small task because when they return home, they go back to different states and cities. It’s not easy to keep in touch with your Birthright friends or organize a class reunion. It’s quite complicated.”
Zvika Klein is an award-winning journalist who covers Jewish Diaspora affairs for Makor Rishon, where an expanded version of this article first appeared in Hebrew.