Vegas 'Boom': Less Than Meets the Eye

By Nathaniel Popper

Published February 02, 2007, issue of February 02, 2007.
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The Las Vegas Jewish community, which has been touting itself in recent years as the fastest-growing community in America, is a good deal further down the list than generally supposed, according to a new demographic study.

The study, commissioned by the Jewish Federation of Las Vegas, found that 200 Jews are moving to the desert city on average each month, a far cry from the figure of 600 often cited by the federation.

Moreover, the new study found that, while 200 are arriving, 130 Jews on average leave Las Vegas each month, resulting in a net gain of only 1,200 Jews per year. That is far below the 4,600 Jews moving to Atlanta each year during the past decade, or the 7,100 moving to Palm Beach County, Fla. Some things, it seems, don’t stay in Las Vegas. Due to local community hype, a number of newspapers — including the Forward, the Boston Globe and the Chicago Tribune — have touted Vegas Jewry’s swift growth, using the figure of 600 monthly arrivals. The overall Jewish population in Vegas is now pegged at 67,500 instead of the 100,000 previously estimated by the federation.

Vegas chart

The executive director of the Jewish federation, Meyer Bodoff, said the previous figures had mostly been extrapolated from anecdotal evidence, including the massive growth of the city’s overall population.

Vegas still can boast of being the 23rd largest Jewish community in America, with a Jewish congresswoman, Shelley Berkley, and a Jewish mayor, onetime mob lawyer Oscar Goodman.

But the study carries a double dose of difficult news. In addition to the reduced population figures, the research suggests that Las Vegas Jews are the nation’s least Jewishly observant community by most commonly used measures, including synagogue membership and philanthropic giving.

Ira Sheskin, the University of Miami researcher who conducted the study, said that when he presented his findings to local leaders, “everyone was a bit disappointed in how the results came out — in terms of the number of Jews and the behavior of those Jews.” Sheskin has previously authored 39 Jewish community studies. The Vegas study, based on a sample of 1,197 telephone interviews, was funded by grants from casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and channeled through the Jewish federation and through a planned Jewish high school.

In an unorthodox departure, the study was released not by Vegas’s community but by Sheskin’s university in Miami, a continent away. Bodoff, the federation executive, said the unusual publishing venue had nothing to do with the uncomfortable findings. “The number was startling, no question about it,” Bodoff said. “But I’d much rather be surprised and have real numbers than be living on numbers that aren’t real.”

In addition to publishing the new Vegas statistics, Sheskin’s study assembled Jewish data from other cities to allow a comparison with other communities.

To compare the communities’ recent growth rates, Sheskin computed yearly growth in cities that have conducted two separate demographic surveys during the past two decades. Among these cities, Atlanta had the highest growth rate, with the Jewish population increasing by 4,800 per year between 1996 and 2005. Palm Beach County, which includes a number of retiree-heavy cities such as Boynton Beach and Delray Beach, averaged 7,100 newcomers in each of the past five years.

San Francisco grew by 4,500 Jews a year over the past 20 years, while Washington had 3,100 newcomers per year in the same period. The demographer responsible for Atlanta’s study, Jack Ukeles, affirmed that Atlanta’s growth has been explosive. But he cautioned that there are a few cities with swift Jewish growth where there is not yet enough information to calculate the extent of the change, including Denver and San Diego.

The Jewish population in Vegas went from 55,600 to 67,500 between 1995 and 2005. Where Atlanta was skewed toward a younger Jewish population, and the Florida communities are older, Vegas has a relatively even distribution of ages.

It was on measures of Jewish engagement that Las Vegas Jews stood out most sharply. Compared with nearly 40 cities that had recent demographic studies, Vegas had the lowest percentage of Jews who belong to a synagogue (14%), keep a kosher home (5%), light Sabbath candles (11%) and belong to a Jewish organization of any sort (12%). The next-lowest city in synagogue membership, Seattle, had a 21% affiliation rate, while in St. Louis the figure was 56%.

Demographers have long known that in expanding communities such as Vegas and Atlanta, individuals are less likely to take part in communal activities; however, Sheskin said, Vegas is “off the charts.” Bodoff acknowledged that the “number of unaffiliated Jews is really, really high, and that’s our task — that’s our challenge.”

Sheskin’s report cited several areas in which the federation has failed to reach out. Only 24% of local Jews are on the federation mailing list, the lowest figure in the country. Sheskin also noted that the community does not have a functional Jewish community center or communal campus where people might gather. “It would be hard to think of a place that has even half the number of Jews that doesn’t have a significant Jewish community campus,” Sheskin said. Bodoff said that the lack of facilities is largely a result of the fact that newcomers have shown less interest in Jewish activities.

Still, he said the federation is improving its techniques. Its annual fundraising campaign grew to $4 million last year from $1.5 million in 1995. There are now plans for an innovative new Jewish campus with performance spaces and a museum.

One significant asset of Las Vegas Jewry is the study’s funder, Adelson, who is the wealthiest Jew in the world, according to figures in Forbes magazine. Adelson committed $25 million to the new Jewish high school and has recently emerged as one of the single largest forces in Jewish philanthropy.

But on the whole, the city looks less promising for the Jewish future. “I’m hoping that the country doesn’t look like Las Vegas in 20 years,” Sheskin said.

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