A foundation currently being established by casino and resort mogul Sheldon G. Adelson promises to change the face of Jewish philanthropy. The new entity will be a major boon to American and Israeli causes, with a pledge to dole out more than $200 million dollars to Jewish causes annually - the largest-ever pledge by a Jewish foundation.
The creation of the foundation comes on the heels of the announcement in October by Adelson and his wife Miriam, an Israeli physician, to give $25 million to Yad Vashem - the largest donation received by the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem by a single donor. The Adelsons, who live in Las Vegas, are also funding the construction of Las Vegas' first Jewish high school, scheduled to open in fall 2008.
The foundation will begin its operations on January 1. Adelson has appointed Boston attorney Michael Bohnen as Director of Jewish philanthropy. Bohnen was national chairman of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and chairman of Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, and serves on the boards of other charitable and educational organizations. Bohnen declined to comment, as did Dan Raviv, special advisor to Adelson in Israel for Las Vegas Sands Corp., where Adelson is chairman of the board and CEO. Adelson could not be reached for comment by deadline.
The foundation's formation puts Adelson at the top of the heap of philanthropic foundations that devote all or most of their giving to Jewish causes. These include the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation in Baltimore, Maryland; the Avi Chai Foundation in New York; and the Koret Foundation and the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund, both in San Francisco. Among the most generous to Jewish causes is the Weinberg Foundation, which gave away over $98 million in 2005, a large proportion of which went to Jewish causes, and the Avi Chai Foundation, which gave away some $33 million last year, all to Jewish causes.
But whether Adelson will succeed in fulfilling his lofty goal is unclear. "Many donors face the challenge when deciding to give away large sums of money of finding appropriate institutions to use that money effectively and efficiently. The higher the target goal for giving money away, the harder it becomes to find places to give it to," notes Jewish philanthropy expert Gary Tobin, President of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco. Regardless, adds Tobin, "I predict that Adelson will change the nature of Jewish philanthropy by setting new standards in dollar terms for giving to Jewish causes and hopefully others will follow his lead. Right now we do not have a living philanthropic leader in the Jewish community who is regularly giving mega-gifts - multiple gifts of $25 million or more - that inspire others to give higher and higher amounts."
Adelson, 73, is the third richest person in the U.S., with a net worth of $20.5 billion, according to Forbes Magazine in 2006. His is a true rags-to-riches tale: The son of a Boston cabdriver, Adelson grew up in the poor (then-Jewish) neighborhood of Dorchester. At age 12, he borrowed $200 from his uncle to sell newspapers on the street, and made his first fortune by creating the computer industry's premier trade show, COMDEX, in the mid-1980s, which he sold to a Japanese company for $862 million in 1995. He has operated over 50 businesses. His major windfall came in Las Vegas and Macao, China, where he has started multiple real estate businesses, largely casinos and hotels. His Las Vegas Sands Corp., which he took public in 2004, owns and operates the Venetian Casino Resort and the Sands Expo and Convention Center.
Bohnen's "knowledge is vast and he is one of the most respected Jewish lay leaders out there. We all have great confidence in him," says Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University. Sarna did not confirm Bohnen's appointment. The creation of the new foundation "is part of a story of how very wealthy American Jews are using funds to help strengthen the Jewish community and are doing it not by going to existing federations and institutions but rather, just as they have carefully managed their own fortunes, they are now carefully managing how they distribute those fortunes."
These "start-ups," says Sarna, "are nimble and don't have to bother with endless committees and creating consensus on the things they are interested in doing - they just think out of the box and go ahead and do it. However, there is also a very important place for the federation system which is dedicated to supporting traditional needs such as schools. Competition, with each institution forced to prove who is doing more for the money, is a good thing."
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