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Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson expected to set new charity donation record

by Tom Tugend

December 14, 2006 | 7:00 pm

Sheldon G. Adelson, chairman of the board, Las Vegas Sands Corp.

Sheldon G. Adelson, chairman of the board, Las Vegas Sands Corp.

Sheldon Adelson, frequently dubbed "the world's richest Jew," is about to claim the title of biggest Jewish philanthropist. The Las Vegas-based global casino and resort owner is slated to announce creation of a foundation that will allocate $200 million a year, according to a rising tide of media leaks and speculation.

Adelson himself, in a phone call to The Journal, would not confirm these figures, or that the money would be split between projects strengthening Jewish heritage and medicine. He labeled such media reports as exaggerated or erroneous.

"Everything I do promotes Jewish heritage, and I've given more than $200 million to medical research," he said. "We're now focusing on 10 different diseases."

It is believed that half of the $200 million will go for projects to preserve the Jewish heritage and half for medical aid to the needy.

On the current Forbes 400 list of the 400 richest Americans, Adelson ranks third with $20.5 billion, up from a mere $1.4 billion in 2004. That year, Adelson took the Sands public, with his family as the majority stockholder. The shares have more than doubled since the initial public offering.

However, the 74-year-old entrepreneur has made no secret of his ambition to overtake Bill Gates, who leads the field with $53 billion, and Warren Buffett, second at $46 billion.

The expected new mega-donation tops Adelson's other contributions this year, including $25 million to the Yad Vashem Martyrs Memorial in Jerusalem, between $2 million and $3 million to hospitals and residents of northern Israel hard hit by Hezbollah rocket attacks.

This week, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported that Adelson had pledged $5 million to Birthright Israel to send 2,000 additional young American adults on 10-day trips to Israel.

A close friend of opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, Adelson came under scrutiny some years ago for alleged improper donations to the Likud election fund.

In this country, Adelson has been a generous supporter of Republican candidates and, in Las Vegas, he has underwritten a new Chabad center. He has also pledged $25 million for a state-of-the-art Jewish community high school in the gambling destination.

Much of Adelson's interest in Israel has been spurred by his second wife, Miriam, an Israeli internist and authority on methadone treatments for drug addicts. She heads rehabilitation clinics in Las Vegas and Tel Aviv.

Adelson is the father of five children and his life and career is in the best immigrant's-son-makes-good tradition. His father left Lithuania for Boston, where he made a modest living as a cab driver.

Young Sheldon started his business career at 12, when he borrowed $200 from his uncle to buy the "rights" to peddle newspapers at a favorable Boston street corner.

He attended City College of New York, but dropped out to work as a mortgage broker, investment adviser and financial consultant.

Adelson made his first big money by creating COMDEX, which became the world's leading computer trade show, one of the first of 50 companies he has founded or developed during his lifetime.

In 1989, he joined the big league by buying the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas for $128 million, gutting it and then erecting the 4,000-suite Venetian Resort Hotel Casino.

Legend has it that Miriam Adelson inspired the Venetian concept while the couple was on their honeymoon. Whoever deserves the credit, the super-luxurious Venetian resort complex helped to revolutionize the Las Vegas hotel industry and give a facelift to Sin City.

Not resting on his laurels, Adelson broke into the Asian market two years ago by opening the Sands Hotel in Macao, the former Portuguese enclave on China's southeast coast.

Next year, he will open the Venetian Macao as part of a complex of 20,000 hotel rooms and 3 million square feet of retail space. In addition, Adelson has won the right to open the first casino in Singapore.

"We're in an obsolescence-proof business," Adelson told Bloomberg News. "We're in the second-oldest business in history." Recently, Adelson has been slowed by a nerve condition and needs to use a walker, but he is not about to step down as chairman and CEO of the Las Vegas Sands Corporation.

"Why do I need succession planning?" he told Bloomberg. "I am very alert. I'm very vibrant. I have no intention to retire. But if I were to retire, I would keep my family interest in the company the same and say 'don't sell.'"

Appraising Adelson's influence, Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco, told Israeli reporters, "I predict that Adelson will change the nature of Jewish philanthropy by setting new standards in dollar terms for giving to Jewish causes and hopefully others will follow his lead." {--Tracker Pixel for Entry--}

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