February 5, 2012 at 6:30 AM
In search of Sheldon Adelson, finding a UW alum and a community treasure
LAS VEGAS — Media and punditry buzz over Sheldon Adelson hit a crescendo this week. Time, then, for us to get an insider’s view of the impact of this multi-billionaire casino mogul and entrepreneur — literally.
We did, thanks to a UW alum in the desert.
We decided to go to a place that has received a great deal of attention: the Dr. Miriam & Sheldon G. Adelson Educational Campus (AEC), where the highest-profile Republican caucus in the state was held last night, after other caucus sites were closed, for citizens whose religious faith precluded them from caucusing during Saturday daytime.
What we found was not Adelson, but a Jewish community centerpiece.
UW Election Eye colleagues David Domke, A. V. Crofts and I drove north from downtown, to an area of gated communities and tan, Spanish-style buildings. This had manicured written all over it, and I questioned if we would be able to enter the campus. Recollections of my own time at a Jewish Day School in Bellevue told me to expect a protective fence.
And we found one, a tall, strong fence, with a security guard in front of it. With a school logo on his jacket, the guard asked to see our credentials. He crosschecked the schedule of visits — the three of us knew we weren’t on it, and we braced ourselves to be summarily dismissed. Not finding our name, the guard called into the school to check if someone there was expecting us. That was going to be another no-go, we knew.
“We have about a 30 percent chance of getting into this place,” Domke said. I thought this was wildly optimistic.
Soon an employee emerged from behind the fence and curtly told us that we did not have an appointment, and informed us in no uncertain terms that we would not be entering — unless we wanted to return for the public caucus.
Domke asked if there was any possible way to talk to someone else. The guard mentioned a name and said we could call her. He did not offer a phone number, but I had it. Domke dialed, and while he did, I snuck away to snap whatever photos I could of the elusive school. We would be leaving in about 60 seconds, I figured, so I’d get what I could.
Moving along the tall shrubbery, I caught glimpses of the buildings inside. A glass dome, artfully flanked by palm trees, marked the school’s entrance. In front of the doors, twin metal doves arched their wings skyward atop an outdoor statue. As I contorted to try to get the best photo angle of the flying Israeli flag, Domke called me over.
We were going in.
It turns out that the school’s Director of Development is a 1997 University of Washington graduate. When we agreed to focus on the school and not the caucus, she agreed to give us 10 minutes, but with no quotes on the record.
She ended up giving us 45 minutes, a tour, and a recorded interview.
The building’s beauty and newness were immediately obvious. At the entrance, we craned our heads up to read the words encircling the blue, inner rim of the glass dome.
“The world rests on three things: justice, truth, and peace,” pronounced the neat silver letters, both in English and Hebrew.
Development Director Davida Sims waited ahead, coincidentally — or was it fate? — wearing a Husky purple blouse. She ushered us into her office to establish the visit’s parameters. She explained that there would be no photographs — for the children’s safety and privacy — and that the Republican caucus wasn’t affiliated with the school, but simply using the facility.
“It’s just a school that happens to have a caucus,” she said.
She led us down the main hallway, pointing out the school’s many top-notch — indeed, truly spectacular — facilities. The institution offers preschool-through-high school education, with classes divided into Lower, Middle and the newly added Upper schools. Adelson and his wife Miriam, an Isreali-born physician and drug addiction expert, helped to lead the philanthropic effort that made the school possible, and in 2008 AEC became the only Jewish community high school in Las Vegas valley.
The cafeteria was bustling with young children in blue-and-white uniforms. I recalled reading about AEC’s extensive commitment to kosher food, and Sims was pleased to discuss the rarity and privilege of having three separate kitchens: one for meat, one for dairy and a third for pareve (items that could be eaten with either).
As we padded along the carpet, indoor windows allowed glimpses into a well-stocked library and small classrooms that averaged, Sims said, 15-person class sizes. Overall, because of teacher aides, the student-to-teacher ratio is 8:1, she said. A gaggle of Upper school girls in plaid, pleated skirts and clean-cut blazers passed by us, leaving their backpacks unguarded by a row of closed but unlocked lockers.
Sims told us about AEC’s holistic approach to education. The school wanted students to succeed academically, but also to live by the “Jewish ethos and values.” Part of that was insisting on a healthy body as well as a healthy mind. To uphold the tenet, 8th to 12th grade students and the entire faculty took multiple, mandatory drug tests throughout the year.
The Jewish moral influence, quotes, and insignia were widely present, but Sims noted that AEC students are not required to have a religious education. The school is not affiliated with any denomination and the campus houses no synagogue. The Hebrew language is an ingrained part of the curriculum, but any Talmudic studies are elective.
In the same vein, though the majority of AEC’s 505 students are Jewish, non-Jews are welcome and make up about 25 percent of the private school.
By the time we meandered over to the school’s fabulous swimming pools, Sims was speaking freely about what she saw as an inadequate commitment to education in Las Vegas valley.
This is one of the only places where one can earn a living wage without completing a high school education, she said. That is good on one hand, but also disincentivizes education. For Sims, that lack of priority is evident in the number of schools accredited by the National Association of Independent Schools. Las Vegas has three. Only two of them go up to high school and AEC is one of them. In contrast, the city of Seattle has 19, with another 13 in the surrounding area.
So when AEC expanded its buildings to accommodate four times more students three years ago, it was a big deal. “It is a great thing when anything positive happens in education in Las Vegas, from a secular perspective, but it also was a real important moment for the Jewish community,” Sims said.
The valley’s (approximately) 70,000 Jews weren’t the only ones that benefitted though. Sims described the void of community spaces in the area. That’s why the AEC routinely opens its doors to outside organizations needing a place to congregate. For example, the school has hosted fundraisers for muscular dystrophy and local plays. The Republican caucus, to be run by GOP officials on the Sabbath, was just another public gathering.
When we eventually arrived in Sims’ office, the conversation turned to the director’s own raison d’être. She earned her UW degree in History in 1997, and then went to law school at Northeastern University in Boston.
She fondly recalled her undergraduate years in the Emerald City, and said she sorely missed the Seattle culinary scene. She’d met her chef husband there and the two became engaged at Flying Fish. The couple and their two children — both enrolled at AEC, and both of whom received hugs and kisses from Sims as we walked through the building — were firmly settled in the valley, but Sims said her husband would love to move back to Seattle.
So how about her?
“You know,” she began, jokingly instructing us to quote her, “I could be who I am in Seattle and I can be who I am in Boston and I could just be another person throwing a stick at the millions of people who are trying to do really great things.
“Las Vegas desperately needs people who are willing to give up law and get their hands dirty. … [H]ere I am able to do what I have a passion for, what I was born to do, whatever it is anyways and actually make a difference. And that’s why when I came here, I wanted to stay here.
“That’s the truth. I came here for economics, it was an inexpensive place and I showed up and I thought ‘Wow, this is such a strange town,’ but instead of going ‘I gotta get out of here,’ I thought, ‘This town needs help, it needs people who really care and are invested and want to stay here and make it better.’”
We went looking for Adelson, but saw his impact, in a school and a people.