The table is sumptuously laid out for 16, with appetizer plates and enough silverware to promise a multicourse meal. With smells of chicken soup and sounds of seven children playing, it's just a typical Friday night in ... Las Vegas.
What's a nice Jewish family like the Harligs doing in Vegas?
Rabbi Shea Harlig, father of seven and founder of the Desert Torah Academy, is first of three Chabad shlichim (emissaries) sent here, and he doesn't find anything unusual about living in the center of Sin City.
"Half of the people who come here [to Las Vegas] don't live here ... they don't want to be here for Shabbos," Harlig, 35, tells The Journal. Some of the seven guests around his Friday night table are perfect examples of people not in Vegas for its pleasures: a businesswoman from New Jersey who got stuck here on a marketing conference, an author brought in by the Jewish Community Center to discuss her new book.
Harlig is a man of many firsts. His family was the first to observe Shabbat here. They were the first to arrange for the shipment of fresh kosher meat to be sold in Vegas. They established the first Vegas synagogue to have three daily minyans. When they came here 10 years ago, the kippah-wearing Rabbi and his bewigged wife, Dina, 31, stood out for their conspicuous display of Orthodoxy, in a city that conspicuously displays anything but.
Today, the Harligs are proud that all those firsts led to the mini-Chabad empire that they have built up in Vegas. It's come a long way from the small in-house gathering the Harligs used to host when they arrived in the city, armed only with the blessings of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe and a bit of seed money provided by Rabbi Shlomo Cunin, West Coast director of Chabad Lubavitch.
Now, the center of Vegas Chabad is a $1.5 million building, which was donated by Sheldon Adelson, owner of the luxurious Venetian on the famous Strip. This building houses the school (complete with a state-of-the-art computer lab, physical education instruction and 120 students), a mikvah, offices and a shul. On any given Shabbat, one finds a surprising number of men sporting black hats and long beards, and the services are spirited in a way that is reminiscent of shteibls in religious enclaves like Crown Heights -- not hot and sunny places where palm trees line the streets and bright lights beckon to reckless endeavors.
There are also two other Chabad houses in different suburbs, as well as various social, welfare and community services. "Many people realize that in order to keep Judaism going, you need Chabad outreach activities," Harlig says. "Although they might not be prepared to practice everything, they understand that you have to give the next generation an awareness of Judaism -- and that is what Chabad does."
Harlig -- a self-avowed driven man -- says that his job running Chabad of Las Vegas doesn't allow him to keep a regular schedule or take time off. "There is always someone else who needs help or needs counseling, and some days it's a struggle. But I have friends from yeshiva who went into business, and they are struggling too. The difference is that I am struggling to do holy work, and I would rather struggle to do that."
For an ambitious man, Harlig is deceptively low-key. "Sometimes people ask me, 'Did you believe this was going to happen?' I didn't know what to expect. My job is just to look around and see what needs help and what needs improvement."
He's always looking: buying bus tickets home for Jews who lost every last cent at the gaming tables, bailing out newly indigent gamblers from jail, even helping people find jobs. He plans now to expand his adult education programs and to acquire a 9,000-square-foot building for another Chabad house in Summerlin, a suburb of Vegas.
It's a long way from Brooklyn, Harlig's hometown, where he grew up knowing that he wanted to be a rabbi, and it was only a matter of where to go to help Jews return to their faith. He considered moving to Copenhagen, but then decided that Las Vegas would be more of a challenge.
The Harligs' work has made being religious in Vegas less challenging, but they struggle to give their children the same kind of Jewish education that they would have received had they stayed in Brooklyn.
To this end, Rebbetzin Dina, who is an efficient, creative and energetic educator, holds "a.m. and p.m." Torah contests with her children every Shabbat, where the children compete to give the best retelling of the parsha during Friday night dinner and Saturday lunch. The children play "Torah Torah Mitzvah" instead of "Duck Duck Goose," and they sing hearty renditions of the Chasidic songs that they learned in camp back East, where they spend most summers.
But as there is no religious high school for them in Las Vegas, the Harligs have resigned themselves to the fact that, come high school, their children will have to be sent back to New York for a "real" Yeshiva education.
Yet, in true Chabad style, Harlig imagines that all problems will be solved with the coming of the Messiah. "I envision when Moshiach will come, all the hotels will be big yeshivas. All the rooms will become dorm rooms, the big dining rooms will be where we will eat and the casinos will become learning halls. That is why I think these hotels were all built -- so that they can become yeshivas."