Jewish-American casino mogul Sheldon Adelson marked his upcoming 80th birthday at a raucous Birthright-Israel "mega event" last evening at Tel Aviv's Nokia Arena in the presence of another August birthday boy, President Shimon Peres, and approximately 6,000 Taglit-Birthright participants and alumni.
Adelson, who has given hundreds of millions of dollars to support the program, was serenaded with two versions of "Happy Birthday" and presented with a birthday cake in the shape of a Birthright bus full of smiling participants.
"I haven't addressed this sized crowd for a long, long time," Adelson said as he took the microphone. "In the beginning of the current era, there were 10 million Jews in the world. Today there are only 13.5 million, and Birthright is going to reverse that trend."
Joined on stage by his Israeli-born wife Miriam, Adelson spoke off the cuff to the young crowd, encouraging them to "make more babies, not necessarily on this trip" and to visit his casinos around the world. Then he turned serious: "One of the things that we're hoping you'll do when you get back to your home countries is to espouse for, advocate for, promote and care for the Jewish people because we are all one big family."
In his remarks, Peres, who had his own star-studded birthday bash in Jerusalem last week, called Wednesday night's event a "gathering of the past and future of the Jewish people.
In between speeches, the arena erupted with deafening musical performances. Birthright participants from Brazil, Uruguay, Panama and the United States, among other countries, waved light sticks and danced in their seats.
Several young people in attendance said they found the big-budget show to be a bit over the top. "We can see through this," said 21-year-old Rachel from New York, referring to the jingoistic nature of the event. "I hope most people can think critically about this trip and about the information that we're given."
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