These days, Las Vegas has it all: world-class entertainment, high-end casinos, art museums, all-you-can-eat buffets and lots and lots of Jews. Clark County, which includes the Vegas area, is home to about 1.7 million residents — as many as 100,000 of whom are Jewish.
Each month brings 600 more Jewish transplants to the area, making the city and its suburbs home to the fastest-growing Jewish population in North America, according to Meyer L. Bodoff, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Las Vegas. His colleague Beth Miller, chief operating officer of the federation, talks about Boomtown’s Jewish population boom, which began in the 1990s, in terms often reserved for Manhattan’s Lower East Side of a century ago.
“People are flooding here because this is truly the melting pot of the 21st century,” she said.
“Explosion,” in the positive sense of the term, is a favorite catchword in the federation offices. There’s the “building explosion,” an “explosion in generosity” and a corresponding “explosion in services.”
Weather, job opportunities, no personal income tax and 24-hour fun are factors that contribute to the city’s appeal — particularly for senior citizens and young families with children under age 5, who, according to Miller, are the fastest-growing segments of Jewish transplants.
Currently there are no hard data on the number of Jews living in the Vegas area. The most recent survey dates back to 1995, when 55,600 Jewish people called Vegas home. However, results from the Southern Nevada Jewish Population Survey will be released this spring, providing an up to date official headcount.
If you’re looking, Jewish hotspots are only a blink away in this city better known for its craps tables than its challah. A few blocks west of the Strip, at 318 W. Sahara Ave., is Adar Kosher Pizza. Don’t be fooled by its sparse décor (or by the billboard in this strip mall, featuring a blonde busting out of her top). Adar serves up a tasty mix of Israeli, Italian and American cuisines to mostly Orthodox tourists, according to its proprietor, Tzila Peri, who moved to Vegas from Israel five years ago. A member of one of four local Chabads — there are more than 20 synagogues in the Las Vegas area — Peri hosts a Torah class at the restaurant Monday nights. “Of course, we serve them pizza,” she said.
According to Peri, there are thousands of Israelis living in Vegas. “Most of the Israelis didn’t come from Israel direct. They were from New York, Los Angeles,” she said.
Any doubt that Sin City is a popular tourist and residential destination for the Israeli jet-set is put to rest at Sababa’s, a heavily trafficked falafel pit stop 15-minutes west of Las Vegas Boulevard in the Jewish-populated suburb of Summerlin. On a recent visit, this reporter was the only customer not conversing in Hebrew with owners Rami and Mirav Cohen. The ambience is enhanced by a flat-screen television that broadcasts the latest Hebrew programming from Israel. The Cohens moved to the Las Vegas area more than a year ago from Boston, and Rami’s eatery is still a kosher fixture in nearby Brookline.
Sick of the Boston winters, the Cohens knew they wanted to move somewhere warm. The question was where. “I didn’t want Florida because of the humidity. I didn’t want L.A. because of the traffic. Here [there] is no traffic and no humidity,” Mirav said in between serving portions of baba ganoush and bourekas.
In a city known for vice and excess (to get “free” drinks at any casino, simply play the penny slots until a cocktail waitress takes your order) the Jewish community is making strides to educate its youth about drugs and alcohol. Multibillionaire Sheldon Adelson — principal owner of the Las Vegas Sands Corp, which runs the Venetian Resort Hotel Casino — and his wife, drug-addiction expert Dr. Miriam Adelson, have pledged $25 million for the construction of a Jewish high school and a Jewish community center. The high school, which will be located in Summerlin as part of the already existing pre-kindergarten through eighth grade Hebrew Academy, will test students for drugs and alcohol. While the details are still being sorted out, parents would sign permission slips for high school students to submit to a hair or urine test. All grade levels will learn about the dangers of drugs and alcohol through an integrated curriculum.
Adelson said she understands that by drug testing the teenage students, the school might be sending the message that it doesn’t trust them.
“Out of 100, I trust 99,” she said in her office at the Dr. Miriam and Sheldon G. Adelson Clinic, which treats narcotic addictions in the city. To help that one student it is necessary to test all of them, she said. If a student is found to be using, the school will make sure that student gets help, ensuring that the staff “will hold the child… will hug the child,” for support.
The possibly of having as many as 10,000 Jewish alcoholics in the area presents the community with still another reason for concern. According to Susan Lind Vex, a Las Vegas-based research associate for Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons and Significant Others, there
is only observational evidence about the number of Jewish alcoholics in America. Yet, said Lind Vex, such evidence mimics the trend within the greater population, in which roughly 10% are afflicted. With a Jewish population hovering at around 100,000, education and recovery support is key for the health of the community, Lind Vex said.
In addition to a close-knit community, Las Vegas has something else working in its favor: affordable housing.
Rose Raphael is a “Real Estate Maven,” at least according to her Web site, www.jewishvegas.com. A transplant from Scarsdale, N.Y., Raphael moved to Las Vegas in 1990 planning to retire. But instead of retiring, she got her real estate license. In an overstuffed market with more than 20,000 real estate agents, Raphael needed a shtick to attract clients.
“The only thing I had is my Jewishness that makes me different,” she said. (Indeed, Raphael — with Star of David charms on her cell phone and Judaica paraphernalia on her keychain — certainly is prone to Jewish tchotchkes.)
If she had to put a percentage on it, Raphael offered that 98% of her clients are Jewish and 92 % of them come from out of state. “This is my niche market, the Jewish people,” she said.
According to the Greater Las Vegas Association of Realtors, an average three bedroom in the area costs $323,158 as of December 2005; the average four bedroom went for $485,252.
Raphael is partial to Vegas not only for its warm weather but also for its atmosphere. “I like Vegas for the psyche of Vegas. The philosophy of Vegas is, you come out here to have a good time.” Not to mention the ever-present chance to win big. Can’t sleep? There are always the craps tables.
According to Raphael, “Who’s to say no?”