Three Things Sheldon Adelson Taught Me | Opinion

In 2015, my wife and I moved to Las Vegas to build a new pro-Israel organization together with Sheldon and Miriam Adelson. We were excited to work with these legendary philanthropists. We knew that with their vision and support, we'd be able to make a real difference.

What we didn't expect was that we'd grow so close to both of them. Losing Sheldon hit us hard. He was a patriarch in the best sense of that word. He was a founder and a father. He supported us as a community, and as individuals. We miss him terribly. And there are thousands of others who feel his loss every bit as deeply.

As I reflect on the five years I was privileged to work with this man, I realize that he had a profound, positive influence on my life. He taught me lessons about politics, business and management. More importantly, he taught me to be a better person. Sheldon never claimed to be a righteous man—he just acted like one. He exemplified the Jewish exhortation to "speak little and do much." Three lessons stand out, in particular.

Treat Everyone With Respect

Sheldon treated everyone the same. I mean everyone. He treated the waiter serving him his dinner the same as he treated the United States senator speaking to him on the phone. This didn't require great effort on his part—it came naturally.

I imagine this had something to do with his background. Sheldon grew up poor, and he was not an overnight success. As he hustled to make his way in the world over those difficult decades, I'm sure he suffered insults and slights from privileged mediocrities. He must have internalized the lesson that neither status nor power determines one's true worth.

Some have complained to me that Sheldon was tough with them. And yes, he most certainly could be. But they're missing an important point. Respecting people doesn't mean coddling them. Quite the contrary: If you respect someone, you will speak frankly with them. You will tell them to their face that you disagree with them. When we're so "nice" to people that we fail to be honest with them, we're actually doing them an enormous disservice.

Sheldon respected people enough to tell them the truth. Always. He never condescended. In an age when people tend to praise you to your face and savage you behind your back, I grew to treasure his candor.

Dare To Be Different

When polls are conducted about what people fear most, public speaking and death compete for first place. If people were being honest, however, they'd add that they're also terrified of standing apart from the herd. That's why people invest so much time and effort to make sure they're wearing the "right" clothes, are seen in the "proper" company and voice "correct" opinions.

Sheldon was the only person I've known who truly didn't seem to care what strangers thought of him. He simply lacked this fear of being different or unpopular—and it served him very well in life.

Sheldon Adelson in December 2019
Sheldon Adelson in December 2019 MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

When Sheldon first arrived in Las Vegas, for example, casino industry veterans warned him that an integrated resort (one that provided multiple entertainment options beyond gambling) would never work. Sheldon disagreed. And he went on to make his real money building integrated resorts in Las Vegas, and then in Asia.

During the 2008 financial crisis, investors dumped his Las Vegas Sands stock so quickly that its value plummeted 90 percent. Sheldon went in the opposite direction. He invested an additional $1 billion, saved his company and eventually regained all he had lost.

The same independence applied to his politics. He began life as a Democrat but came to believe that Republican principles would ensure greater prosperity and security. And for this ideological heresy, he was regularly eviscerated in the press. But by the time I met him, this stampede of critics had become nothing but background noise to him. When I mentioned negative articles, he didn't even ask to see them. His self-worth was tied to other, more constant things.

Get Yourself a Tribe

Many of us dream about earning enough money to retire to a tropical island where we'll never have to deal with people again. It's an alluring dream, but a bleak reality. Sheldon was never tempted by such silliness. He recognized that true joy comes from being deeply enmeshed in one's nation, people and community.

Sheldon was a patriotic American, a proud Jew and a pillar of his communities in both Boston and Las Vegas. These weren't abstract identities, but living affiliations he pursued through active participation across multiple organizations.

Sheldon's involvement went well beyond writing generous checks. When Sheldon supported an organization, he showed up at their conferences and stayed for the duration. And throughout the long days, people lined up for the chance to speak with him. They often interrupted him while he was eating or conversing. Yet Sheldon would speak to everyone who approached him, even if it took hours. He made the time because that's what you do when you're a member of a community. You listen.

Nor did he limit his attendance to national events. He was also a fixture at small, local events here in Las Vegas. After a hard day, I'd sometimes arrive at these events reluctantly, looking to make a quick exit. But then Sheldon and Miriam would show up and sit there among the small group that had ventured out. They didn't come to speak. They didn't come as a special favor. They came because that's what you do when you're a member of a community. You show up.

I have so many memories of this man. But one keeps coming to mind. This is how I will remember Sheldon Adelson. It's late on a weeknight. A small event in a school cafeteria has ended. Most of the 30 or so guests have gone home. But there's Sheldon, tie loosened, sitting on a plastic chair talking to a couple of students. He's got a twinkle in his eye. There's nowhere else in the world this multi-billionaire would rather be.

David Brog is executive director of the Maccabee Task Force.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.