Sheldon Adelson’s right-hand man is to assume a key position at Taglit-Birthright, in a move that could signal the conservative billionaire’s desire to wield more influence on policy-making at the organization, which brings tens of thousand of young Jewish adults to Israel on free 10-day trips each year.
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Michael Leven, 76, who plans to retire as president of Las Vegas Sands at the end of this year, will become chair of the Birthright planning committee, responsible for program design and strategy. He will replace Canadian billionaire and philanthropist Charles Bronfman, one of the founders of Birthright, who plans to step down from that position at the end of the year.
Adelson, 80, who serves as chairman and CEO of Las Vegas Sands, the world’s largest gambling company, has emerged as Birthright’s biggest benefactor in recent years, his total contributions to the organization reaching $180 million thus far. To date, however, the casino mogul, one of the 10 richest men in the world and known for his close ties with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has refrained from intervening in policy decisions at Birthright, including program content, according to well-placed sources in the organization. Neither does he hold any official position in Birthright.
Although he will step down as planning committee chair, Bronfman, 83, will continue, for the meantime, to serve as co-chair of Birthright, working alongside Naftali Bennett, head of the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi Party, who assumed the position of position of charman of the steering committee when he was appointed minister for Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs last year.
The planning committee, which Leven will head, is responsible for key policy issues at Birthright, such as determining criteria for program participation, trip duration and itinerary content. Several months ago, the Birthright steering committee headed by Bennett approved a recommendation by the planning committee to allow young Jews who had already visited Israel on high-school programs to participate in Birthright. Until then, they were ineligible.
The planning committee is now considering a recommendation that would open participation to 17-year-olds. Today, the program is open only to 18-to-26-year olds, but Birthright is interested in recruiting younger participants, according to senior officials in the Jewish organizational world, so that they can serve as pro-Israel advocates on their campuses as soon as they start college.
Michael Bohnen, president of the Adelson Family Foundation, would not comment on the new appointment.
The Andrea & Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, which have supported Birthright from its beginnings, are scheduled to close down in 2016. In response to a question from Haaretz, its president Jeff Solomon said that Bronfman will continue to support Birthright “throughout his life and has made arrangements for a bequest thereafter.”
Like Yossi Beilin, a former cabinet minister and leader of the Israeli left who conceived the idea for Birthright, Bronfman is known as a political dove. Birthright has always prided itself on being non-partisan and has enjoyed widespread support across the political spectrum. But organization insiders have expressed concern that appointing a close associate of a hardliner like Adelson to a critical policy-making position at the organization alongside Bennett could signal a shift.
This article was amended on June 13, 2014 to correct the official position of Naftali Bennett within Birthright, which was previously misstated.