Getting Serious About Vegas

Tuesday, March 22, 2011
Special To The Jewish Week

Las Vegas —This desert oasis was home to pioneering Jews long before “the Strip,” with its lavish entertainment and legalized gambling, became a household word.

Jews began arriving in southern Nevada as early as 1850, lured by a gold strike in Carson City.

Another attraction was the building of the Hoover Dam, which drew some Jews to Las Vegas in the 1930’s.

But it was the appearance of legalized gambling here in 1931 that made massive tourism a possibility and a growing Jewish presence a reality.

In more recent years, the Las Vegas Jewish community has undergone a major growth in size and stature regarding investing, banking, clothing and real estate.

And we’ve seen people like Oscar Goodman, the colorful and respected Jewish mayor of Las Vegas, work hard to promote the city.

For Elliott B. Karp, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Las Vegas, the city’s recent growth in Jewish population, especially in the early 2000’s, has been a positive indicator of how it is perceived by Jews outside of Las Vegas.

“I think that finally,” Karp says from the federation’s modest sandstone offices, “the organized Jewish community has woken up to the fact that, guess what, this is a serious Jewish community, and it’s also a serious convention city.”

As a sign of this recognition — and a feather in the federation’s cap — Karp points to TribeFest, the 2011 National Young Leadership Conference of the Jewish Federations of North America, which convened some 1,200 young Jewish leaders from the U.S. and Canada at the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino here earlier this month.

But that’s not all.

At the end of March, the city will host the , when 400 Conservative rabbis from around the world will arrive on the heels of the Union for Reform Judaism’s earlier national board meeting.

“We roll out the red carpet for communal hospitality,” Karp says, “because that’s the way we are here in Las Vegas. It’s good for the Jewish community and the Las Vegas economy.”

So it’s apparently “sin city” no more: Las Vegas has become a legitimate place to hold a national Jewish event.

And why not?

”Coming here for a convention,” says Karp, is no different “than if you go to Manhattan and go to a Broadway show or to Orlando and Disney World.”

I understood what he meant when I sat down to watch “Le Rêve,” the spectacular show at the Wynn Theater at Wynn Las Vegas, which features breathtaking aerial acrobatics, provocative choreography and artistic athleticism in and out of a magical pool of water.

It’s just the sort of theater extravaganza for which Las Vegas has become famous, including “rain” falling over 80 feet from a high grid, and 22 cast members flying at one time during on the same sort of cable used to build aircraft.

Until the recession, the Las Vegas Jewish community was known as one of the fastest-growing in North America, with a population estimated to be 70,000 to 80,000.

Today, roughly 80 percent of Las Vegas Jews live in suburban Summerlin and the Henderson-Green Valley area.

Smaller pockets are found in the Las Vegas Country Club area off the Strip, while a concentration of Orthodox Jews lives west of the Strip near the Chabad Desert Torah Academy, a yeshiva for boys and girls.

For the uninitiated, it may come as a surprise that Las Vegas supports four Jewish day schools — the Chabad yeshiva; a smaller Orthodox school housed at a Reform congregation; a Solomon Schechter school; and the Adelson Educational Campus.

The city is also home to many synagogues, both large and small, representing Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Chabad.

And if you’re hungry for kosher food, there’s some pretty good traditional Middle Eastern and Chinese in town.

It’s interesting to pick up a copy of the Las Vegas Israelite, the community’s bimonthly newspaper, for a sense of the rich diversity of Jewish life here.

While the economic recession obviously has slowed things down in Las Vegas, especially the conference business, there’s also a sense of real hope, with people on the street telling you that “things have got to get better.”

The Wynn Las Vegas, top, where “Le Rêve” is playing. Above, the Las Vegas federation building. George Medovoy

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