In September 2011, Forbes magazine ranked Sheldon Adelson the 8th richest man in America and 16th in the world. He is chairman and CEO of the Las Vegas Sands Corp. with integrated resorts in Asia, Pennsylvania, and Las Vegas where his holdings include The Venetian, The Palazzo and the Sands Expo and Convention Center.
He has contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to Jewish and Israeli concerns and is the single largest donor to the Birthright Israel program. He and his wife, Miriam, recently presented Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial with $25 million – the second $25 million donation made by the couple to Yad Vashem in five years. Their total contribution is the largest ever received by Yad Vashem from a private donor.
The Jewish Press: Let’s start at the beginning. Where were you raised?
Adelson: As far as I was concerned, we lived in a Jewish ghetto in Boston. I used to call it the slums. The best you could say about it was that it was a dense, impoverished area. My parents had few material things and the moneylender came to the house so often that I thought he was an uncle, like he was part of the family, because he would show up at every family affair.
What was it like growing up so impoverished?
For several years the whole family – my parents, two brothers, and my sister – lived in one bedroom. The living room was a storefront where my mother ran a knitting store. Besides that, there was a little sitting area, a bathroom, and a kitchen. But there was always this blue and white pushke on the kitchen table. My dad, being a cab driver, always came home with a lot of change in his pocket, so he would take all the change in his pocket and put it into the pushke.
One day I asked him what he was doing and he said, “I’m filling the box.” I asked him what happens when it gets full and he said, “I take it down to the place,” which turned out to be the Federation office. “They empty it and give it to poor people, then give it back to me and I fill it up again.”
I said, “But Daddy, aren’t we poor?” He said, “Yeah, we’re poor, but there’s always somebody who’s more poor and you have to help take care of them.” I didn’t want to believe that, because nobody ever helped me. I had to do everything on my own. He made me promise that I would put money in a pushke every day. I don’t quite do it like that, but I think he’ll forgive me because I do it “in bulk.”
When did you start working?
When I was about nine. I had to work for three years to save $35 to buy a bicycle. I repaired bicycles, shoveled snow, did odd jobs. But then, my first business was at the age of twelve. I bought and sold two newspaper “corners.” The “corner” was like a franchise to be able to sell the local newspapers. It was a right, and I had to buy that right from somebody.
As a boy, were you determined to become rich?
No, I never thought about becoming wealthy. It never crossed my mind. What really motivated me was to try to accomplish something. Achievement is the motivation of entrepreneurs.
Did being Jewish always play an important role in your life?
Oh, yes. My father wasn’t very religious, but he told me his father was – my grandfather, whom I never met. My parents sent their children to Hebrew school, and on the high holidays my father would insist that we go with him to shul.
For my father, when Israel was founded it was a wonderful day. He always wanted to go to Israel, but he could never afford it. When I made enough money so that I could afford to give my parents whatever they wanted, I wanted them to go to Israel, but by then my father was too old and too sick to go.
Were they able to see you go to Israel?
No. My parents died in 1985, may they rest in peace. When my siblings and I went down to clean out their apartment, I saw a pair of his shoes. My father and I had exactly the same odd shoe size. When I used to visit my parents in North Miami Beach, we would go to the Florsheim store in Bal Harbour. It was the only store in the country where I could find more than one pair of shoes in my size. I would try to encourage my father to get shoes, but he’d always say “No, but those shoes that you just bought, take good care of my shoes.” Then in the summer, when he came to spend time with my family and me, he would take the shoes from me because I couldn’t get him to spend any money. My mother, too, was the same way. So when they passed away and we went down to clean out their apartment, I saw those shoes that he had recently taken. I took them back with me.