An interview with power-couple philanthropists Sheldon and Miriam Adelson
By Zvika Klein, JNS.org
Birthright, the project established in 2000 by philanthropists Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt, has brought 750,000 participants to see Israel for themselves. The Hebrew daily Makor Rishon recently convened the project’s founders, via video-conference, to explain the impetus behind funding an airplane ticket and hotel accommodations for wealthy young people.
In a subsequent Zoom session, the publication interviewed power-couple philanthropists Sheldon and Dr. Miriam Adelson, from their California home. (Disclosure: Makor Rishon is held by the Israel Hayom Group, owned by the Adelsons). The couple joined Birthright as donors in 2011, enabling a significant expansion of the project.
Miriam Adelson: We heard about Birthright when we were looking to invest in projects that are significant for the Jewish people. When Charles Bronfman told us about it, we became very excited. Bronfman asked for a small amount of money, and Sheldon said, “Of course, we will give it.” Sheldon later told me, “I don’t understand why didn’t ask for more. I would have given him more!”
Later, we heard from [American philanthropist] Michael Steinhardt that 10,000 young people register for Birthright’s waiting list every year, and that they are waitlisted because there is not enough money to send every person who registers. We decided then to fund everyone on the waiting list. But then the list grew longer, with 20,000 people in line. So we subsidized them, too.
Sheldon Adelson: My father dreamed of going to Israel, but did not live to see the day. He was born in Lithuania and had suffered immensely for being Jewish. He had always believed that Jews needed a place in the world where they could walk the streets without being beaten, whipped or shot—a place where they would be normal citizens. Years later, after the state of Israel was founded, no one talked about going on a holiday in Israel.
At that time, people in Israel were living in tents, and there were no developed businesses. By the time that I had amassed enough money to send my father to Israel, he said that he was too old and ill. That is why, when Miri and I heard about Birthright’s waiting list, we decided we to make sure that these young people would not have to experience what my father did, that they would not have to grow old regretting that they never visited Israel.
Miriam: These visits have shown to have an impact on Jewish continuity. The program reinforces the Jewish people. Whenever we are in Israel, we make a point of talking with Birthright groups. One of the girls told me, “I know there are no free rides. What is it that you want from me in exchange?”
It was on their tenth and last day in Israel. I told her that by being here for 10 days, she was reinforcing her connection with her roots, family and people. I said, “Now that you have been here, you will forever have a warm place for Israel in your heart. If Israel is in danger, you will be one of the soldiers fighting for it. You will go to the White House to protest. You will do something for Israel. You may not know it yet, but you have already delivered me the return on my investment. Your presence here means you are committed to your family. I have received from you much more than I have given you.”
I love all Jews, be they from the right or the left. I believe that they are all part of my larger family. At the same time, I want to protect my family. I want my grandchildren and great-grandchildren to be Jewish. If the situation on the campuses remains as it is, we are in a bad way. Research by Brandeis University showed that Birthright graduates have a 76 percent chance of marrying Jews, compared with 42 percent among those who did not participate in the program, as a result of having gotten stuck on the waiting list. Had we not donated to Birthright, we would have lost many people within a single generation.
Even my own two sons went to Israel with Birithright. My son, Adam, called me from Israel and said, “Mom, it has changed my life.”
I asked him, “How? You have been to Israel with us dozens of times. You have been to Bedouin tents, to Masada, everywhere. So how come this trip changed your life?”
He said it happened to him on Mount Herzl. “We visited the grave of a soldier who was our age, 18, when he was killed,” he said. “We all cried together. Then we went to Yad Vashem. It was at that moment that my friends and I realized the significance of our visit to Israel. We are Israel’s soldiers around the globe.”
Sheldon: Our son has mobilized dozens of young people on campus. They filled two Birthright buses. He became sort of a guide.
It’s important that, as Jews, we do everything in our power to have more people join. We give Birthright between $20-30 million a year, but it’s not just them. We’ve built a medical school at Ariel University, the Entrepreneurship School at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya and many more ventures. We do not regard this as a payment, but rather as assistance to the Jewish people.
Miriam: When I see American Jews who criticize Israel or BDS supporters who pretend to be pro-Israel, I feel a twinge in my heart that my brothers and sisters are ignorant of the facts, and that they are filled with anger and hatred. I ache for them, but they are Jewish as far as I’m concerned. Maybe their children will know better. If the BDS movement encourages them to refrain from going to Israel, we will give them a tour to show them the opposite view.
In 1988, when I married Sheldon, we used to go to fundraisers for Israel held by members of the American-Jewish community. At first, I felt they were just giving money to Israel to clear their consciences. Gradually, I found out about the amount of time – not just money – that they were investing to find out how to help Israel, whether by aiding the integration of immigrants from the Former Soviet Union or by adopting a town in Israel. I think that time is more valuable than money, because it involves investing a piece of your life. American Jews love Israel, except for those who became more liberal. The heart of American Jewry is in Israel.
The Israeli soldiers who join the Birthright buses for several days, mingling with young Jews from the United States and other countries earn a great deal from their interaction with the participants. It transforms them. They, too, come to a greater understanding of what they are fighting for, which is not only the state of Israel, but the Jewish people. It’s a life-changing realization for them.
Research shows that Birthright influences not only the participants themselves, but also their wider circles. One participant, for example — the daughter of a Christian mother and a Jewish father, who was raised as a Catholic and even sang in the church choir — became connected with her Jewish roots. When she returned home, she converted to Judaism, started to observe Shabbat and attend synagogue. Her brother followed her example, and even her mother converted to Judaism. I hear stories like this one all the time.
I would have liked to reach 80,000 participants every year. It is estimated that100,000 babies are born every year to Jewish families. Clearly, not all of them will be able to make the journey, for a host of reasons, but I would like to see all the others visiting Israel.
Sheldon: I would like to see the alumni continue the project, reinforcing their Judaism and love of Israel even further.