When a storm wreaked havoc on East Coast air travel last winter, among the thousands of travelers stranded were several dozen Israeli-American teens from Washington and Philadelphia. But these youths, who were en route to the annual meeting of the Tzofim, the Israeli scouts, were luckier than the many others forced to mill about air terminals.
Soon after their flight was canceled, a private executive jet landed at Baltimore-Washington International Airport to take them directly to their destination in Los Angeles. For most of the excited teens it was their first trip on a private jet. Some told their parents it was the highlight of their winter camp. All they were asked in return was not to take any photos.
The private jet’s owner was billionaire Sheldon Adelson. And it was an act that mirrored, in its small way, the broader goal of Adelson’s philanthropy and high-profile political giving, of which Tzofim is just a part: to be not just supportive, but also transformative.
Thanks to this approach, Adelson now plays a role unlike that of any Jewish philanthropist before him. “The Adelsons tend to go narrow and deep,” said Mark Charendoff, president of the Maimonides Foundation and former president of the Jewish Funders Network. The philanthropic couple, he explained, identifies specific causes near to their hearts, rather than giving to broader-based communal organizations. “They tend to choose a couple of things and go very, very big.”
For many Americans, the name Adelson is synonymous with outsized political donations and the opening of corporate floodgates to back candidates following the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010. The Las Vegas-based casino mogul is also known as a prominent backer of often hawkish pro-Israel organizations. But less noisily, he has also established himself as one of the leading donors to purely charitable Jewish and non-Jewish groups, ranging from schools, to elder care, to medical research.
Ranked as the ninth largest donors in America in 2013, Adelson and his Israeli-American wife, Miriam Adelson, split their giving between Jewish and pro-Israel causes, which are funneled mostly through their family foundation, and medical programs funded by the Dr. Miriam & Sheldon G. Adelson Medical Research Foundation.
As with the teens on their way to California, in many of these cases Adelson is not just one among a number of large donors — he’s the donor who changes the destiny of the organization. The growing significance of his giving and, in some cases, of his private investments, has made him into something new in Jewish life: a man with an empire of his own.
“Sheldon is an example of the new kind of philanthropy that is emerging,” said Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation who, as head of a significant fund himself, follows trends in Jewish philanthropy. “It will benefit the community, but the community won’t necessarily have a say.”
In Ruderman’s view, Adelson embodies the new reality of Jewish philanthropy in a gilded age where more and more depends on the wealthiest few. It is a type of charitable and political giving driven by the donor’s agenda, not by communal consensus.
According to the most recent records available, Adelson’s philanthropic and pro-Israel contributions in 2012 amounted to about $44 million. Since its founding in 2007, the family foundation has given out $191 million. This sum does not include gifts given in 2013, and excludes all political donations. It also excludes the huge sums Adelson is sinking into several for-profit ventures with political ramifications, such as Israel Hayom, Israel’s largest newspaper.
A close look at his giving offers two contrasting views of the Vegas billionaire: One is of a political-minded player willing to spend whatever amount it takes to promote his goals and ideology; the other is that of a generous communal funder who provides huge donations to purely charitable enterprises, such as schools and elder care programs, and seeks no influence in return.
On November 7, Adelson’s latest philanthropic investment will take on a newly prominent profile with its first-ever national conference, in Washington. The Israeli American Council was, until several years ago, a sleepy Los Angeles-based group of Israeli expatriates. Thanks to the support it has received from Adelson and his wife, it has been transformed into an increasingly visible domestic presence in support of Israel.
Their donation of an estimated $2.5 million this year has eclipsed the gifts of the group’s previous main funder, Haim Saban, which reached a peak of $400,000 in 2011. The IAC’s Washington conference is intended to broadcast its emergence as a rapidly expanding national organization.
In recent years, the Adelson Family Foundation has supported dozens of Jewish organizations by making seven-figure donations. Such organizations include the Jewish federations of Las Vegas, where Adelson currently resides, and of Boston, where he was raised. Major gifts have also gone to the Newton, Massachusetts, Gateways organization, which helps children with special needs gain Jewish education, and to Hebrew SeniorLife, an innovative elder care organization in Boston.
In 2012, the Adelsons’ medical research fund awarded more than $22 million in grants to advance the development of cures for disabling and life threatening illnesses. Here too, the Adelsons give big, with six and seven figure donations. They also combine this with their passion for Israel in some cases by providing grants to Israeli research institutions, such as the Weizmann Institute and Tel Aviv University.
The donations stand out mainly because of their transformative size. They include a $50 million gift to construct a Jewish day school in Las Vegas; large donations to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial museum, and, most notably, the annual $30 million-plus gift Adelson gives to Taglit-Birthright Israel, the Jewish community’s flagship program for sending Jewish young adults on free 10-day trips to Israel that aim to bind them to the Jewish state.