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Miriam Adelson cut philanthropy as casinos hit COVID slump. Now they’re rebounding

JTA — The casino company controlled by Jewish megadonor Miriam Adelson is paying its shareholders dividends again, potentially paving the way to a rebound for the family’s foundation.

The Adelson Family Foundation — founded by Adelson and her late husband, Sheldon Adelson — has been a prolific giver to Jewish organizations, including Birthright Israel. The couple was also active in politics, supporting Republican campaigns. But after the casino industry flatlined early in the pandemic, Adelson’s donations to charitable and political causes declined.

Assets held in the family’s charitable trust dropped from more than $200 million before the pandemic to $37 million in 2021 as it distributed money to the foundation and other causes without being replenished, according to records filed with the IRS.

The foundation’s grantmaking dropped to $80 million in 2021 from $100 million the year before and $117 million in 2019, according to IRS records. The foundation had only about $6 million in reserves at the end of 2021. More recent numbers are not yet available.

The dip in giving has had a significant impact. The Birthright program, for example, saw its funding from the Adelson Family Foundation cut by half in each of the past two years, with a corresponding drop in free trips for young Jews to Israel.

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Now, Adelson’s business prospects appear to be improving. Her Las Vegas Sands Corp. announced that it would pay dividends to shareholders for the first time in more than three years as the company begins to recover from the pandemic-related downturn in global travel and hospitality. Adelson’s own personal payout is expected to be about $87 million for the quarter, a substantial sum but still a fraction of what she and her husband were regularly collecting before the pandemic.

It’s unknown whether or when the cash infusion will spell a restoration of funding for the various organizations that have seen a drop in support from Adelson over a period of several years, which has included Sheldon Adelson’s death at 87 more than two years ago. Adelson’s representatives said she is not giving interviews at the moment; Michael Bohnen, president of the Adelson Family Foundation, declined to comment.

Miriam Adelson stands over the coffin of her husband, the late Jewish-American billionaire Sheldon Adelson, at Ben Gurion Airport, January 14, 2021. (Ami Shooman/Israel Hayom)

The list of organizations that have been buoyed by Adelson’s support is long and varied. It includes right-wing advocacy groups like the Israeli-American Council and Zionist Organization of America; the Maccabee Task Force, a campus pro-Israel group founded by conservatives; US fundraising groups benefiting the Israeli military; the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and memorial in Jerusalem; and the Adelson Family Campus, a large Jewish day school in Las Vegas, where Adelson lives.

Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, said he is confident in the Adelson family’s commitment to the charities it has supported.

“The Adelson family has played a pivotal role in Birthright Israel and in the organization of the large community of Israelis in the US through IAC,” he said. “They have also contributed to countless other Jewish philanthropic endeavors, including Jewish day schools and the Jewish community of Las Vegas. I have no doubt that the family will continue its tradition of philanthropic generosity.”

Andrés Spokoiny, president and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network, said the Jewish philanthropic world doesn’t rise or fall because of any one donor, even a philanthropist as prolific as Adelson.

“The funding landscape is diverse and there is no sense of dependence on a single donor,” he said.

(From L-R) Sheldon Adelson, Miriam Adelson and US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman attend a ceremony marking the start of the school year for the inaugural class of students at Ariel University’s medical school on October 27, 2019. (Josef Photography)

The Adelson name is also big in Republican politics: The couple broke a record for the most donations in an election cycle in 2020, with almost $173 million in campaign contributions. But the 2022 midterm election saw the newly widowed Adelson give only a fraction of that, with no contribution at all to the Republican Jewish Coalition, whose top patron became WhatsApp founder Jan Koum, who gave a $1.35 million donation to RJC’s Super PAC.

The reinstatement of dividends was made possible by increased visitation to Sands casinos in Macau and Singapore in recent months, which generated revenues of $2.5 billion for the second quarter, double what they were a year ago. Executives at the company said business still hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels, suggesting room for further growth.

“In Macau, we were pleased to see the ongoing recovery now underway in all gaming and nongaming segments progress during the quarter,” Sands Chairman and CEO Rob Goldstein said during a conference call on July 19 with investors. “We remain deeply enthusiastic about the opportunity to continue our investments to enhance Macau’s tourism appeal to travelers from throughout the region, including to foreign visitors to Macau.”

Sheldon Adelson and Miriam Adelson look at a model of the Sands Cotai Central resort during a news conference in Macau on April 12, 2012. (AP/Kin Cheung)

As a result of Sands’ profitability, the company is paying shareholders a dividend of 20 cents per share. Adelson’s roughly 57 percent stake is valued at more than $35 billion, placing her among the 40 richest people in the world according to Forbes.

Under Miriam Adelson, Sands has been lobbying to legalize gambling in Texas and is pursuing a bid for one of three licenses to operate a casino in New York.

Sheldon Adelson, who founded Las Vegas Sands and served as its CEO as it grew into an international gambling and resort empire, died in January 2021, living long enough to see Sands revenues plummet because of COVID-related lockdowns. The following year, the company, now controlled solely by Miriam, sold its marquee Las Vegas properties, The Venetian and the Sands Expo and Convention Center, for $6.5 billion in a bet on its Asian casinos and resorts.

It’s not the first time the Adelson empire has faced and recovered from economic headwinds. Adelson had begun expanding in Asia ahead of the 2008 financial crisis, borrowing heavily to finance the construction of new casinos and hotels. The company had lost billions as a result of the timing and the Adelsons paused much of their giving for a few years.

American billionaire Sheldon Adelson (R) and his wife Miriam meet then-head of the opposition Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara Netanyahu at the Israeli Presidential Conference in Jerusalem. May 13, 2008. (Anna Kaplan /Flash90)

Whether Miriam Adelson desires to shift philanthropic priorities following the death of her husband remains unknown. The 77-year-old, an immigrant to the United States from Israel and a naturalized American citizen, earlier this year criticized the judicial reform being pursued by the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which was notable because of the Adelsons’ long-standing support for Netanyahu.

Compared to her husband, Miriam has kept out of the public spotlight, with a significant exception in 2018, when Donald Trump awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s top civilian honor. A profile of her in The Guardian shortly afterward suggested that she had been far more influential in the couple’s activities than many realized.

“Everybody says it’s Sheldon, but it’s Miriam,” Michael Cherry, a board member of the Las Vegas addiction recovery clinic that the Adelsons founded, was quoted as saying.

Then-US president Donald Trump presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Miriam Adelson during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House, in Washington, November 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Together with her husband, Miriam was the largest donor to Trump’s 2016 presidential bid. But she has not yet announced support for Trump this time around as he seeks to win the Republican nomination and get reelected in 2024. Earlier this year, Trump’s rival, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, was reportedly courting Adelson and other Jewish conservative donors. DeSantis and Adelson were seen seated together at a dinner in Jerusalem. But Adelson has reportedly said that she does not plan to make an endorsement in the primary.