Vegas has high-rolling hopes for its unaffiliated Jews

LAS VEGAS — For gamblers and other vacationers, Las Vegas is "Sin City:" bright lights, glitzy stage shows and the incessant clanging of slot machines.

For most of the 50,000 Jews who have moved here since 1990, Las Vegas is "Secular City:" a place to work, recline in the sun and avoid Jewish life so completely that even the federation and the Lubavitchers can't find them.

For rabbis and other professional Jews, this desert metropolis is the "Wild West." They see untamed turf thirsty for a Jewish infrastructure that will attract and nurture some of the 90 percent of local Jews not affiliated with the community — a uniquely high figure among American Jewish cities.

"If we can get a handle on it and figure out how to build community, we can be a model for the rest of the country," says Laura Sussman, executive director of the Jewish Community Center of Las Vegas.

Las Vegas is home to an estimated 75,000 Jews, 19 congregations, three Jewish day schools and three kosher restaurants.

Yet America's fastest growing Jewish community lacks many of the facilities that older communities of a similar size long have enjoyed: a JCC, a nursing home, an assisted-living center, a high school and a board of Jewish education.

The key to communal transformation will be convincing Las Vegas' wealthiest Jews to ante up for everyone's benefit, say local Jewish officials.

That will require a shift in thinking from institutional to communal support, says Meyer Bodoff, the new, ebullient executive director of the Jewish Federation of Las Vegas.

With a $1.6 million campaign this year, the federation lags behind two congregations and Chabad Lubavitch as a local Jewish power center.

The area's oldest and most populous congregation, Temple Beth Sholom, was founded in 1946 and has grown, primarily since 1998, to 700 households.

Its expansive, reddish stone synagogue — with its tall wooden doors and landscaped palm trees — opened in 2000, two years after the energetic Rabbi Felipe Goodman arrived from Mexico City.

The synagogue features an elegant mikvah and an acclaimed preschool. The Hecht Board Room, named for the family of former Sen. Chic Hecht, is lined with photos of well-to-do former presidents of the Conservative synagogue, including Oscar Goodman, the mayor of Las Vegas and former Mafia lawyer who led the temple from 1975 to 1977.

A 15-minute drive away, Rabbi Shea Harlig presides over the 12-year-old Chabad of Southern Nevada from a corner office in a gleaming $1.5 million headquarters.

The 12,500-square-foot facility, opened in August 1999, features a sanctuary, library, gift shop, mikvah and classroom wing for the Desert Torah Academy, a day school with 120 students.

Chabad's two branch sites also are growing, including one in Summerlin, a planned community west of downtown Las Vegas.

Summerlin also is the destination of Congregation Ner Tamid, Las Vegas' oldest and largest Reform temple.

The 650-family congregation has bought a 10-acre parcel, where it is looking to build a sanctuary, chapel, preschool classrooms, adult education facility and room for the Reform Jewish day school that Rabbi Sandy Akselrad hopes to establish.

Designed to accommodate 1,200 families comfortably, the new facility "is intended to be a center of Jewish life," Akselrad says.

That sounds much like the plans for the Jewish community center that now sit in Sussman's office, waiting for the $25 million needed to build the facility on 11.5 acres purchased in Summerlin.

Akselrad doesn't deny the similarities.

"Yes, there's a certain competitiveness. We're all trying to attract more people," he says. But "by creating innovative programs, we raise the bar for what's exciting and expected in Las Vegas."

Essentially, each Las Vegas Jewish institution is making Shabbos for itself, outside of some inter-synagogue and synagogue-JCC programming.

The separateness doesn't seem to rankle many Las Vegas Jews.

When Rene Diamond moved here from California with her husband and children in 1972, "there wasn't a Jewish Family Service. There was one synagogue. The federation was tiny. As a result, you just didn't expect more. That's just the way it is and always has been," she says.

The 7,000 Jews who attend Las Vegas synagogues on the High Holy Days generally don't clamor for more Jewish institutions. "People want a religious affiliation," but nothing more, Diamond says.

The phenomenon has its roots in the Jewish community's rapid and unplanned growth.

One of the fastest growing cities in America, Las Vegas attracts 6,000 new residents per month, about 600 of them Jewish, Bodoff estimates. Approximately 25 to 30 percent of the new Jewish arrivals are seniors coming to retire, and an equal number are families with young children, Bodoff says, citing a 1996 federation-sponsored Jewish demographic study.

"They're coming for a vigorous local economy, good housing values and the absence of a state income tax," he says.

Sussman adds: "I don't think anybody moves here for the Jewish culture."

Many of the new Jewish residents "built shuls in Milwaukee, Chicago, Los Angeles. They don't want to get involved here," says Harlig. "Some came here to make it big, most to get away. Low on their priorities are Jewish affiliation, Jewish education."

"I don't see Las Vegas as the fastest-growing Jewish community," Goodman, the mayor, says. "I see it as the fastest-growing Jewish population."

With Bodoff's prodding, the federation is launching a combined needs assessment and marketing effort.

"We're beginning to have meetings in the community" with leaders of each of the 46 local Jewish entities, he explains. "Then we must get the community to buy in. That's why we spend a lot of our professional time going out and talking to groups" gathered at people's homes.

In 10 years, Bodoff predicts, the Jewish community will have its high school, nursing home, assisted-living facility and JCC.

To realize Bodoff's hopes, a capital campaign of $60 million to $80 million — some 30 to 50 times what the federation raises annually — will be needed.

"This is the biggest challenge in this community's life. Don't think I'm naive. I just don't think there's an option," he says.

The urgency mounts on several fronts.

"If the federation doesn't hurry, the congregations will build the kind of facilities — cultural halls, swimming pool, educational centers — that may make it harder to raise money for community facilities," Goodman warns.

Sussman's goal is "a low 30 percent" affiliation rate. "I hope we can create a culture with the expectation that people are involved and give to the community," she says. "It boils down to just caring."