LAS VEGAS — Imagine a place where synagogue services are held in funeral parlors, casinos stand in for Jewish community centers and the rabbis have to plan their services at old-age homes, around gambling field trips.
Welcome to Las Vegas.
Thanks to a booming casino economy and the popularity of the Southwest among retirees, Las Vegas has become one of the country’s fastest growing cities over the past decade. Among the newcomers have been hordes of Jews — about 600 a month — propelling Las Vegas onto the list of the 10 largest Jewish communities in America.
But rapid growth rarely comes without costs, and the Jewish experience here opens a window onto how difficult it can be to forge a cohesive community in the boomtowns of the Southwest. While new casinos are being planned every day, the city still has no Jewish nursing home or Jewish community center facility. To take a tour of Jewish Las Vegas today is to see a community being created on what is essentially a desert island — one where the main natural resources are playing cards and dice. Those trying to foster a feeling of community are often forced to think creatively, as when the local Jewish federation recently decided to use Catholic charities to deliver kosher meals to the Jewish poor.
“I don’t think anything can be said to be unusual in Las Vegas, because Las Vegas is a unique community,” said Meyer Bodoff, president and CEO of the federation. “When people try to apply the standards of other communities, that’s where we get in trouble.”
The provisional nature of the Las Vegas Jewish community is immediately apparent in the appearance and location of the local institutions. While smaller Jewish communities, like those in Atlanta and Kansas City, have sprawling Jewish complexes, the Jewish federation here is tucked away in a suite at the back of an adobe-colored office park.
Having outgrown the synagogue it built only a decade ago, the city’s largest Reform congregation has taken up temporary residence in a suite on the fifth floor of a suburban office building. As a new sanctuary is built, Friday night services are being held in a local funeral parlor. Another local synagogue searching for a home took the unusual step of renting out an old drive-through bank. The vault serves as a Judaica shop.
As the city’s Jewish institutions plan for the future, community leaders are not falling back on traditional models from back east. The Reform congregation Ner Tamid is raising $22 million for a new complex that will give over much of the space to an adult education center for religion and Kabbalah classes — New Age innovations that have proved particularly popular in West Coast Jewish communities.
“What attracted me to Las Vegas is that you could be a pioneer in helping shape a Jewish community,” said Ner Tamid’s rabbi, Sanford Akselrad, during an interview in a conference room that was covered with architectural sketches.
The federation is raising millions to build its own complex. But unlike the JCCs of yore, with their fitness centers and swimming pools, the federation has set its sights on a museum-like space that is being designed in partnership with the innovative Jewish spirituality institute, CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
Regardless of how quickly these complexes are built, though, it’s likely that they will cater to only a small percentage of the city’s Jews. The federation estimates that only one-tenth of some 100,000 Jews in Vegas have any affiliation with the Jewish community. In terms of fund raising, the federation reached the $4 million mark this year — a pittance when compared with the $31 million raised in Cleveland, where there are fewer Jews.
Locals attribute the absence of a cohesive Jewish community in part to the theory that many who move to Las Vegas can’t be bothered. At a recent poker night — organized, in part, by the president of the local Holocaust survivors’ club — the eight elderly friends who showed up said that they were drawn to Las Vegas because of the low taxes (there is no state income tax) and the weather, not because of the religious life. Most of the eight said they knew many people whose Jewish participation has fallen off since coming to town.
“People say: ‘I’ve built temples, I’ve sent my kids through Hebrew school. I don’t want to do any more. How many building funds do I have to contribute to?’” said David Bluth, who moved from New York with his wife 13 years ago.
With roughly half the newcomers being retirees, the issue of community is particularly pressing for seniors. Even when retirees want or need somewhere to go, they do not have many options. The local Chabad rabbi, Shea Harlig, said he gets calls every day asking for the name of the nearest Jewish nursing home, and he always has to tell the caller that there is none. The federation runs a small senior center, but it is only open on Fridays and every other Monday.
In one particularly innovative response to the legions of needy elderly citizens, the federation teamed up with computer-chip maker Intel last year to install computer-monitoring systems for senior citizens living alone with no family nearby. Intel tried the computers in the homes of eight Jewish Las Vegans last year, and soon it may roll out the system nationally.
With the lack of community centers, many elderly have turned to gambling for entertainment and distraction. The glitzy casinos on the Strip are almost exclusively the province of tourists, but betting is part of daily life for locals as well. Almost every grocery store and gas station has a nook with video poker machines, and there are three casinos in the suburbs that are known for catering to the local clientele — one of which opened this month.
Walking around the Suncoast, one of the local casinos, the faces one sees in front of the slot machines are those of the elderly, many in wheelchairs or hooked up to oxygen tanks. A number of the gated retirement villages run daily buses to the Suncoast or to nearby Ramparts. Apart from the slot machines and black jack tables, these casinos have movie theatres, bowling alleys and restaurants that send out coupons to retirees. The Jewish bowling leagues are all run out of the Suncoast alleys.
“It’s a community center for lack of any other community center,” said Les Kopf, one of the card players at the recent poker night.
The centrality of the casinos can present a distraction from Jewish life. Bodoff, the federation president, said that addictions — from gambling to drugs — are a constant problem for all Las Vegas social service providers. On a more mundane level, Rabbi Craig Rosenstein, who runs a synagogue at one of the retirement communities, said that the popularity of the casinos often makes it difficult to organize religious life. When Rosenstein was negotiating to do Friday evening services at a local nursing home, he was told that it wouldn’t work because the bus comes back from the casino at 4:30 p.m. and dinner is always at 5 p.m.
“I have done funerals where a large portion of the folks who attend are casino personnel,” Rosenstein said. “Bouquets coming from the slot house, others from the food and beverage department.”
But the casinos are also providing the assets on which the Jewish community’s future is being built. The richest Jew in the world, according to the Fortune 500, is Sheldon Adelson, principal owner of the Venetian, one of the city’s most luxurious hotels. Adelson reportedly provided $25 million to build a campus for the Jewish day school and community center. Two of his former lieutenants from the Venetian have become benefactors of Temple Beth Sholom, the city’s largest congregation.
The more enterprising religious leaders in the city have worked to harness the casinos for communal purposes. The senior center’s “Senior Prom” was held last week in the Caesars Palace ballroom. Harlig, the Chabad rabbi, negotiated with Adelson to have kosher dishes available at the Venetian. He also set up the city’s first kosher butcher in a cordoned-off area at a local Smith’s grocery store.
“The way the community is developing, it needs some creative ways of doing things,” Harlig said.