Las Vegas isn't exactly the holiest place on earth. Hotels on the Strip have dumped the family-friendly approach in favor of European-style topless shows, and much of the praying takes place at craps tables and roulette wheels. But in this decadent city, synagogues, kosher restaurants and mikvot seem to be springing up quicker than Krispy Kremes to cater to America's fastest growing Jewish community.
About 600 Jews relocate to the Las Vegas metropolitan area every month, according to research by the Jewish Federation of Las Vegas. Lured by affordable homes within walking distance of synagogues, a thriving Jewish community, a business-friendly environment and a high median income, Vegas has become a Jewish boomtown.
"It's an emerging community," said Beth Miller, Federation director of public relations. "It's exciting because this is the last frontier that's being built."
The people moving to Las Vegas are active retirees, young families and singles from cities such as Los Angeles, New York, Boston and Detroit. Many are moving to Summerlin, a planned community located at the base of the Spring Mountain Range on Las Vegas' west side, while others are looking to Green Valley in Henderson. Both are concentrated areas with an increasingly distinctive Jewish flavor -- a first for the city founded by Mormon missionaries in 1855.
For six decades, the Las Vegas metropolitan area has boasted one of the fastest growth rates in the United States. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, Clark County's population increased 85.6 percent between 1990 and 2000.
In 1997, the American Jewish Committee put Las Vegas' Jewish population at 55,000. Jewish Federation of Las Vegas estimates grew to 75,000 in 2000, and they expect the population to balloon to 100,000 in 2010.
The Vegas Jewish community is very tight-knit. Jewish Mayor Oscar Goodman regularly speaks at Federation events. Sheldon Adelson, developer of the $1.2-billion Venetian resort, donated marble to Temple Beth Shalom for the construction of a mikveh.
"It's still small enough so that people know people," Miller said. "It's exciting to feel that you're part of the thrust that is building the community for generations to come. You feel that you can really make a difference."
Median new home prices in Clark County were $165,967 for May, compared to L.A. County's $242,620 in June. Prices for a typical three-bedroom home in Summerlin average between $200,000 to $400,000, and Clark County real estate tax is typically at or just below 1 percent.
Bugsy Siegel's dream in the desert has become an oasis for religious Jews priced out of the housing market in their own cities.
"Ninety-eight percent of the homes I sell to Jewish people are in the Summerlin area because of the temples," said Rose Raphael, a real estate agent who caters to Jews moving to Las Vegas with her Web site, jewishvegas.com.
Raphael said that many of the Jewish people moving to Las Vegas have always wanted to walk to services, so they're snatching up properties around the synagogues as soon as they become available.
To reverse declining attendance trends in the mid-1990s, Temple Beth Shalom spent $10 million to relocate to a 7-acre site in Summerlin. From the August 2000 reopening to the end of that year, attendance rose from 200 to 600 members.
"It's unbelievable growth," said Danielle Friefeld, assistant director of Temple Beth Shalom's preschool. "We doubled enrollment in the last year and we now have a waiting list."
But there's no waiting list when it comes to jobs.
"We need everything," Raphael said. "Doctors, lawyers, and we're desperate for teachers and nurses."
According to the 2000 census, the median income in L.A. County is $36,441, while Clark County boasts $39,586.
The high-tech sector accounts for more than half of the businesses relocating to Las Vegas, and outside of the casinos and hotels, construction is one of the largest employers in Southern Nevada.
Melanie Bash moved from Calabasas more than five years ago to be closer to her husband, a real estate developer.
"He was commuting back and forth, so we moved the whole family," Bash said. "It's a wonderful community here."
Nevada also has no personal state income tax and an impressive lack of red tape. "The state is very friendly toward anyone opening a new business," Raphael said. "They're trying to bring in more business in order to rely less on casinos."
Las Vegas is home to 19 synagogues, including a Reconstructionist and Sephardic Orthodox congregation, a variety of day schools, three mikvot and a Jewish Community Center.
But Las Vegas has no trouble getting good talent for the pulpit. "[Rabbis] are viewing this as a great posting," said Miller, who recently spearheaded the Federation's new Web page, jewishlasvegas.com.
There's also no shortage when it comes to Jewish food.
Bagel shops, like Harrie's Bagelmania and Einstein Brothers, are plentiful. On Sundays, expect a wait at The Bagel Cafe in Summerlin. The family-owned restaurant serves up enormous portions of deli standards, and their bakery is famous for its breads and rugelach. A branch is opening soon in Green Valley.
Pita Express owner Rafael Efraim recently moved off the Strip and closer to the Summerlin community. After being approached by some local day schools, Efraim said he's thinking about making the restaurant kosher.
And although the Los Angeles branch closed its doors, Las Vegas' Shalom Hunan is alive and kicking with delicious kosher Chinese cuisine. Other kosher establishments include Jerusalem Kosher Deli and Haifa Restaurant on the east side, and Las Vegas Kosher Deli on the Strip near the Venetian.
The Four Seasons spent $400,000 on a kosher kitchen for catering, and Rabbi Shea Harlig of Chabad, the only rabbi currently certifying kosher establishments in Las Vegas, wants Adelson to put an all-kosher restaurant in the Venetian.
Las Vegas doesn't have kosher markets per se, but supermarkets like Albertson's and Raley's have impressively large selection of kosher frozen food, fresh meat, and dry and canned goods.
While those who live outside of Vegas decry the heat of summer, those living there like to see the glass as half-full.
"It's sunny almost all the days of the year," Miller said. "Except, of course, the day before my brother's bar mitzvah, when I had all my relatives in from New York."
"People think all we have [in Las Vegas] is gambling," Raphael said. "But we do have religion too."
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