November 3, 2005
Forget low-season hotel packages. Forget high-roller comps. Forget time sharing. The best deal for me in Vegas was not at the
Venetian, Bellagio or Caesar's Palace. It was in Desert Shores, about 12 miles from the strip, in the fast-growing Vegas Jewish community.
Luckily -- since luck is the name of the game here -- a good friend of mine, Jennifer, had invited me to spend Shabbat with her family in this idyllic, red-roofed suburban enclave. I got a great, free room in her large, two-story home, a huge step above her old place in Tarzana.
"My condo in Tarzana was appraised at more than double the original price, which at that time was the price of a beautiful home in Vegas," said Jennifer, explaining part of the logic behind the family's move two years ago.
It's more than just cheaper real estate that prompted Jennifer, her husband, her kids, her parents and other Jewish families to try their luck in Vegas. She also likes an up-and-coming Jewish community that is less institutionalized and much cozier.
"It's just more open," she said. "People don't judge you for your religious levels. You can feel comfortable in your own skin. There are a lot of Jews from different walks of life. You'd think there would be a whole bunch of wierdos, but they're not."
It seems only natural that people near "sin city" would have more open religious attitudes, but Sukkot was the real test for Jennifer, who considers herself Modern Orthodox.
"Sukkot was always great with my family in L.A., and I was afraid I wasn't going to enjoy it in Vegas. But every single night there was a party at someone else's house. Rabbis went sukkah hopping with kids. I had dozens of kids in my sukkah," she said.
Shabbat under Jennifer's desert sukkah was among the friendliest and liveliest I've experienced in a long time. She had 30 people over, most of them young couples with kids.
I spent most of my time talking to the only other single there, Yoni, who works as a manager at a major hotel.
He pointed out that there are many influential Jews in local business and politics. Jews helped to create Vegas, and they continue to develop it. Sheldon Adelson owns the Venetian Hotel; Steve Wynn recently completed his $2.8 billion Wynn Resort; the Greenspun family owns major Vegas media outlets; Oscar Goodman is the mayor; and Shelly Berkeley is a Vegas congresswoman.
And Yoni is an Orange County transplant who loves Vegas.
"You get the big city on Las Vegas Boulevard, and then you drive 10 minutes away to the middle of suburbia," he said. Still, "Sometimes it's tough to meet a 'nice Jewish girl' in Vegas because there aren't that many Jewish singles here."
Jennifer's brother, Richie, had better luck. He hit the jackpot and married a beautiful Israeli woman. According to some estimates, there are about 8,000 Israelis in Vegas, almost 10 percent of the rapidly rising Jewish population, which stands roughly at 80,000.
Jennifer's husband, Jeff, said that once construction on a new two-story, $4 million synagogue is complete in his neighborhood, more Jews will come out of the woodwork. Congregants currently daven at a makeshift storefront synagogue, and nearby is a neighborhood pub/casino, a lakefront French restaurant and a day spa. One shul member pre-orders massages and spends Shabbat afternoon at the spa. The first Jewish community high school is in the works, thanks in part to a $25 million donation from the Adelson family.
Jennifer and her husband hope that the new synagogue will attract out-of-towners looking to buy a home near the shul. You see, Jennifer's betting her chips on real estate. She and her husband, who holds a law degree, each have obtained a real estate license.
But there is only so much Shabbat that one can handle in Vegas. Jennifer and I scored when a shul member we met at a Shabbat lunch got us free Saturday night tickets for the $120-per-seat Cirque De Soleil show at the Wynn. As a marketing director for various Strip venues, she also got on the guest list of Bellagio's exclusive nightclub, Light.
On our night out, we lost $45 between us.
After a night of drinking and dancing at Light, I couldn't help but wonder what will happen when the children of all these Vegas Jewish families hit puberty.
"In every town that you move to, there's always the possibility kids will fall to temptation," Jennifer said. "It all depends on the values they learn. It's no different than keeping them away from the Sunset Strip."
Orit Arfa is a writer living in Tel Aviv. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.