A Southern California rabbi, on learning that I was researching a book on Jews in Nevada, said: “Don’t waste your time. There were no Jews in Nevada until there was a Las Vegas.” It is true that the greater Las Vegas area is currently home to about 100,000 Jews, compared with 13,000 in the rest of the state. Jews, however, have had an influential presence since the discovery of gold and silver on the Comstock in 1859. So before exploring the voting proclivities of Nevada Jews in 2012, a bit of history is in order.
Jews comprised less than 1% of the population when, upon achieving statehood in 1864, the citizenry elected three Jews to the first Nevada State Assembly. One of these was a rabbi on the leading edge of the emerging Reform movement. In 1869, Polish-born Albert Michelson received an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy. He later measured the speed of light and was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics. Reno’s Jacob Davis created the first copper-riveted jeans and shared his 1874 patent with his duck cloth supplier, Levi Strauss. Adolph Sutro from Aachen, Prussia, engineered a tunnel six miles long, from Virginia City to the town of Dayton near the Carson River. Mark Twain called it a “prodigious enterprise” to drain, ventilate and provide rail access to the mines. It was completed in 1878, when the Jewish population of Virginia City peaked at nearly 500. The city’s Jewish chief of police and prominent butcher, Mark Strouse, recognized a niche in the market and hired a traveling rabbi to be his shochet for Nevada’s first kosher meat market.
Shortly thereafter, Nevada’s declining mineral production sent the state into 50 years of economic depression. The Hebrew Agricultural Society unveiled a plan to triple Nevada’s population with thousands of Eastern European Jews, a venture that was doomed when the group’s Jewish agents ran off with a loan against what was supposed to be the society’s first crop. Reno was the state’s largest city for the first half of the 20th century, and in 1921 it erected the state’s first synagogue. Meanwhile, Las Vegas — settled in 1905 — was little more than a dusty rail stop. The liberalization of Nevada divorce restrictions and the legalization of gambling in 1931 set apart Reno as the state’s first “sin city”; however, the building of Boulder Dam and infusion of federal dollars into the Las Vegas economy during World War II helped to launch the city toward becoming a major tourist attraction. Behind the development of the city’s earliest hotels and casinos was a cadre of Jewish owners and managers, many with strong connections to organized crime elsewhere, like the infamous Bugsy Siegel. Meanwhile, disproportionate numbers of Jewish women advocated for desegregation and civil rights. Former mob lawyer Oscar Goodman served three terms as Las Vegas mayor and was succeeded in 2011 by his wife, Carolyn. The historic footprint of Jews in Nevada history has been amplified in modern Las Vegas.
Jews currently number slightly more than 3% of the total state population. Local rabbis tell me that less than 10% of these belong to a synagogue. These affiliated Jews are spread out among 20 separate congregations in Las Vegas and four in Reno. How this population will vote in 2012 depends on some grim economic figures, a number of wild cards and a few conflicting trends.
Nevada leads the nation in unemployment, homes underwater and imminent foreclosures. The national recession has wounded the tourist industry. The state has no income or estate tax, and the prospect of raising property or sales taxes to help offset the state’s loss of revenue is unthinkable to many. Michael Green, professor at the College of Southern Nevada and historian of Las Vegas Jewry, has identified a few of the possible critical factors that will affect how the state’s Jews vote in 2012; they include demographics of the Nevada Jewish population, the Culinary Union, Shelley Berkley and Sheldon Adelson.
Las Vegas has long had the fastest-growing 55-plus population in the country. Green has observed that its residential patterns never expanded vertically, nor did they “Manhattanize.” Rather, they expanded outward into the boundless desert. For Jews in this group, the result was a growing independence from traditional Jewish values once reinforced by neighborhood and synagogue affiliations. While Jews will likely remain heavily committed to the Democratic Party, they will be more conservative than the national Jewish average.