September 21, 2011
Opinion: A penny to get to Israel
I’m standing in a room with Sheldon G. Adelson, the tough, outspoken billionaire casino magnate. And I’m wondering: Where is he?
I had arrived at the lovely Wilshire Boulevard high-rise home of Corie and Michael Koss expecting to meet the fearsome subject of Connie Bruck’s 2008 profile in The New Yorker — the 16th-richest man in the world in the 2011 Forbes list, the chairman and chief executive officer of Sands Las Vegas Corp., the brash man who created Vegas’ showcase Venetian hotel and casino, the outspoken right-winger who helped propel Bibi Netanyahu to office.
But when Adelson spoke, he was a surprise.
He was modest. Haimish. Earnest. Even nervous.
He came to talk to a group of big givers to The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles about his favorite charity, Birthright Israel, to which he has given more than $110 million to date.
More than 100 guests showed up. And before he stepped up to the podium, Adelson and his Israeli-born physician wife, Miriam, received a string of laudatory introductions by Michael Koss; Federation chair Richard Sandler; Barry Schrage, the longtime president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston (the Federation equivalent there); and even Adelson’s friend Michael Milken, who used his time to describe a long-ago scheme to arrange a shidduch between their kids — which was so unsuccessful and subtle, as it turns out, that this telling was apparently the first the Adelsons heard of it.
“I’ve never done this before,” Adelson said of this fundraising pitch for Birthright, though he’s spoken often to groups of the program’s participants as they complete their trip at Tel Aviv’s Independence hall. “I can’t stand rejection,” he told the group.
Then, he added, “I’ve been told to ‘be short.’ ”
“Look at me!” he joked. Indeed, physically, Adelson, 78, is not a big man.
But his lightheartedness ended as he warmed up and talked at some length, despite the admonition.
He described how he grew up poor, taunted by anti-Semites outside Boston, and how he was deeply influenced by his father, whom he repeatedly referred to, endearingly, as “Daddy.” Adelson’s father was a Lithuanian-born dirt-poor cab driver who, each evening, put all his spare change into the Jewish National Fund “pushke” (tzedakah box). The billionaire son remains bothered that this man, who ardently gave whatever he could to Israel, never got to visit the Jewish state, which is a part of why he believes in sending 18- to-26-year-olds there on free 10-day trips, to help, he said, ensure a Jewish future. Indeed, he has happily paid a lion’s share of Birthright’s costs, though the need has never been fully met, so now he wants more help. Still, he’s prepared to match, dollar for dollar, anyone’s gift.
He explained that “beside my current motto that It Feels Good to Do Good,” he believes in the Jewish obligation to give, whatever your situation. “My parents were too poor to own rags,” Adelson said, and yet, “Daddy told me, ‘No matter how poor you are, there’s always somebody poorer.’ ” The elder Adelson instructed his son to put one penny from every dollar he earned into the pushke, and it stuck.
“I don’t do it every day,” Adelson admitted, “but I make it up in bulk.”
So, why Birthright? Because, he said, he believes that the current trend toward assimilation will be Judaism’s undoing and that Birthright’s introduction to the spirit of Zionism, as embodied by the sights and sounds and values of the Jewish state, is “the best program in my lifetime.”
The room remained hushed as he spoke, and not just out of politeness. Adelson was a different kind of speaker on this night — extemporaneously allowing memories of his beloved father and his humble beginnings to spill out, one over the next. Telling of how he and his dad shared an unusual shoe size — 8 EEE — and that he strode out in his dad’s shoes on his first trip to Israel. It was clear that Adelson still wants some part of his father around.
His failure to bring his dad to Israel drives him: “I don’t want the children, the young people to wait until they are too old and too sick to go to Israel; I want them to go today.”
So, what’s the chance they will? Well, not entirely great. Although Birthright says close to 300,000 youth worldwide have participated on the trips since the program was founded in 1999, and even though Los Angeles’ Federation is one of the biggest givers of its kind to the program — to the tune of $550,000 in 2010, according to Federation, also raising another $700,000 above that from private sources for the trips (matched 2-to-1 by the Adelson Foundation). And while nearly 1,500 L.A. kids went on Birthright trips in 2009 and 2,600 in 2010, the waiting list remains huge and continues to grow.
I had a few minutes with Adelson after his speech to ask him why he had agreed to make his pitch now. Why put himself out? He said it was time for more people to step up, but he has put no limits on his match. “We can give $25 million, $50 million, even $100 million more,” he said. Seems like a generous offer.
But then he added something that hit home even more: “I want other people to understand the importance of giving.”
Which brings us back to that pushke. From one penny to $110 million, the phenomenal impact of Daddy’s lesson to little Sheldon is greater than anyone could have dreamed. And whether we heed Adelson’s call on behalf of Birthright or some other cause, the evening offered a vivid reminder to teach our kids, from the earliest age, of their obligation to give. Because you never know what kind of philanthropist they might become.