Jews first arrived in southern Nevada in 1850, attracted by the discovery of gold in Carson City. Jewish peddlers subsequently interacted with Church of the Latter Day Saints missionaries who, at the behest of Mormon Church leader Brigham Young in Utah, erected a short-lived agricultural settlement (1855–57) as a base for proselytizing nearby Paiute Indian tribes. Jews arrived in small numbers in 1905, after the establishment of a railway hub linking Phoenix, Salt Lake City and southern California. Typical of these merchant pioneers was Adolph Levy (1858–1936), a native of Poland who arrived from Illinois and opened a dry goods store. Levy's niece, Sallie Gordon (1908–1997), a future director of the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, gave birth to the city's first Jewish baby during the early 1930s.
A nascent Jewish presence barely discernible in the city's 1910 and 1920 censuses coalesced in 1931, when some 20 Jewish Las Vegans convened as the "Sons and Daughters of Israel," providing their children with religious instruction in store-front classrooms and meeting at the Elks Club and the Odd Fellows Hall. The community, like the city itself, grew slowly until the legalization of gambling in 1941. Henceforth, Las Vegas began attracting a largely blue-collar component associated with the fledgling gaming industry. The city remained one of the last Jewish blue-collar redoubts in the country.
Vegas Jewry received another boost in 1946, when Meyer Lansky, Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, Morris Barney "Moe" Dalitz, Gus Greenbaum, Dave Berman, Morris Lansburgh, Morris Rosen, Sam Cohen, and other well-known – notorious – underworld figures helped kick-start the transformation of this otherwise sleepy desert rest stop into the nation's "vice and dice" capital.
Las Vegas quickly garnered a reputation as a Jewish mob town, even as some of its more insecure Jewish residents protested that Jewish racketeers generally acted as front-men for Italian Mafioso from the Midwest. The city attracted Jewish mobsters because the initially under-regulated casinos functioned as an almost inexhaustible cash cow. To Jewish gangsters even more than their Italian and Irish counterparts, however, the desert offered an almost unique opportunity to transcend criminal origins and reputations, and to achieve a modicum of communal and civic respectability. Many began this rehabilitative process by joining synagogues and funding parochial schools. One of the city's Jewish day schools, for instance, at Temple Ner Tamid, was named for mobster Moe Dalitz.
The symbiosis between the casino operators and the organized Jewish community generated structural distortions that resounded well past the mid-1970s, when corporations took over the gaming industry. Previously, synagogues, schools, and communal programming depended almost exclusively upon the largesse of the wealthiest casino operators, who became known as "Angels," and who covered organizational budget deficits on a rotational basis with yearly cash pay-outs. This also helped the fledgling State of Israel when it began seeking money for arms purchases from U.S. Surplus and other sources. The costs of religious affiliation for less well-heeled Jewish Las Vegans thereby remained marginal for decades, habituating residents to an unsustainable level of subsidization, and rendering problematic the inevitable transition toward a more equitable and regulated pattern of funding and expenditure. The arrival, in recent decades, of young Jewish families just starting out and of Jewish retirees no longer interested in communal involvement, presented further challenges to communal attempts to increase affiliation. Despite recent gains, Las Vegas continues, like several other western cities, to lag behind comparably sized, and even smaller, communities in the east, especially in creating infrastructure. A hundred years after Jews first began arriving, the city lacks a Jewish community center, a nursing home or assisted living facility, a yeshivah, and a Bureau of Jewish Education. Efforts are underway to erect a Jewish high school and Hebrew Community Center in Summerlin.
During the 1960s, Jewish organizational life centered around the Combined Jewish Appeal (CJA), which became the Jewish Federation of Las Vegas (JFLV) in 1979. The CJA and its successor body functioned as the central coordinating institution responsible for fundraising, planning and allocations, and communal services. Reliance on a small, self-selected coterie of communal contributors and decision-makers, however, resulted in no small degree of organizational dysfunction characterized by redundancies in public relations, fundraising, secretarial services, agency programming, and tax, legal, and accounting functions. Clashes over turf, pedigree, and job titles became increasingly common and progressively debilitating. A dispute between casino magnate Sheldon Adelson (at this writing, the world's wealthiest Jew) and a local hotel union in 1999, for instance, resulted in a vituperative spat that split Jewish congregations and organizations along personal and political lines, further undermining communal development. By 2001, several Jewish communal agencies found themselves facing impeding bankruptcy and requiring a federation bailout. A besieged and hard-pressed federation responded to successive crises by revamping, in 2003, under yet another name, the United Jewish Community (UJC). Helmed by a new, younger board of directors, the UJC began with a reassessment of traditional fundraising and allocation strategies
intended to meet the needs of an increasingly dispersed, fragmented, and even disaffected community.
Today, thanks to a booming economy largely immune to vagaries of the business cycle, and to a general westward trend of young Jewish professionals, the city is experiencing a surprising profusion of Jewish communal expression. With growing Jewish concentrations in the suburbs of Summerlin, Desert Shores, Seven Hills and Green Valley, in Henderson, Las Vegas boasts 18 congregations (eight Orthodox, three Conservative, seven Reform or non-denominational), three day schools (the non-denominational Milton I. Schwartz Hebrew Academy, the Chabad-affiliated Desert Torah Academy, and a Conservative-aligned Solomon Schechter day school), and a Holocaust memorial and resource library. Chabad, which established a permanent presence in 1990, now operates four centers employing seven full-time rabbis. Orthodox residents and visitors – ultra-Orthodox visitors to Las Vegas are many despite the reputation of the city – can avail themselves of three mikva'ot (ritual baths), six kosher restaurants, a Glatt Kosher market, and two kosher stores embedded in local supermarkets. Three major casinos, meanwhile, maintain full-service (though reportedly underused) kosher kitchens and catering departments. Community affairs are chronicled in two community newspapers, the Jewish Reporter and the Israelite, and a monthly periodical, Life & Style: the Las Vegas Jewish Magazine. A Hillel Union at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, tends to the needs of Jewish students on campus.
Jews continue to figure prominently in Las Vegas public life. The city's mayor since 1999, Oscar Goodman (1939– ), is a former mob lawyer unabashed about his love for drinking, gambling, and other local pastimes. Brian Greenspun, the scion of newspaper magnate, land developer, and arms smuggler to pre-state Israel, Herman "Hank" Milton Greens-pun (1909–1989), is the editor of the Las Vegas Sun and active in real estate and casino management. Casino mogul Steve Wynn (1941– ), who built the opulent Bellagio and Wynn Las Vegas hotels, is credited with the Las Vegas Strip's successful marketing, during the 1990s, as a family friendly environment. Rival Sheldon Adelson (1933– ), who built the Venetian Hotel, established Las Vegas as a major convention and trade show venue. Taxi fleet owner Milton I. Schwartz (1921– ) is active in Jewish philanthropy and Republican politics. Democratic Congresswoman Shelley Berkley (1951– ) was elected to the House of Representatives in 1998, and won her fourth term in 2004. Jacob "Chic" Hecht (1928– ) served in the Nevada State Senate from 1967 to 1975, as a Republican in the U.S. Senate from 1983 to 1989, and as U.S. Ambassador to the Bahamas (1989–94). Lori Lipman Brown (1958– ), an avowed civil libertarian, served as a Nevada state senator from 1992 to 1994.
- The first Jewish Synagogue in Nevada was founded in 1921 in Reno. Temple Emanu-El still serves the city's Jewish residents.
- Jacob W. Davis, a Jewish immigrant and tailor, invented jeans at his shop in Reno in 1871 when a customer paid $3 to commission a pair of sturdy work pants for her husband. Davis made them using duck cloth from Levi Strauss & Co and fastened the buttons with copper rivets. Two years later, on May 20, 1873, Davis and Levi Strauss received a patent for what would later become Levis jeans.
- In an effort to boost population in the late 1800's, the governor of Nevada commissioned two Jewish entrepreneursto start a collectivist colony of Russian Jewish immigrants. Dubbed the Jewish Agricultural Experiment, the settlement suffered financial fraud, drought, and natural disaster and only lasted six years.
- Casino magnate Steve Wynn, credited with launching the modern age of Las Vegas casinos with the Mirage and Bellagio, was born Stephen Weinberg in 1942. His father ran bingo parlors (neither of his current Strip properties has bingo, but you can get matzoh ball soup and latkes and Wynn deli Zoozacrackers).
- Jewish gangster Bugsy Siegel was a partner in the development of the Flamingo Hotel and later took over the project, pushing costs up and opening the casino in 1946 before it was even completed. Though it was initially a failure - and Siegel was murdered in 1947 - and memorial to the mobster still stands in the Flamingo gardens.
- Las Vegas Sands chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Dr Miriam Adelson, have given at least $180 million to Birthright Israel. The Adelsons also spent at least $98 million on Republican campaign contributions during the 2012 election cycle.
- In the late 1940's, Hank Greenspun, founder of the Las Vegas Sun newspaper, illegaly ran guns to members of the Jewish paramilitary group Haganah. Greenspun was discovered and convicted of a felony, but was pardoned in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy.
- Greenspun also mediated the Moulin Rouge agreement, which desegregated the city in 1960.
- In 1999, five skinheads attempted to firebomb Temple Emanu-El in Reno. In response, the Jewish Defense League staged a protest outside of the federal courthouse where they burned Nazi and confederate flags. All five men pleaded guilty.
- Musician and Rat-Pack member Sammy Davis Jr nearly died in a car accident on his way from Las Vegas to Las Angeles on November 19, 1953. While recovering in the hospital he learned about Judaism, and eventually converted in 1961.
- Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fischer were married in Las Vegas at Temple Beth Shalom on May 12, 1959, after Fischer left his wife and Taylor's best friend, Debbie Reynolds. Taylor wore a green dress to the wedding.
- Imperial Palace owner Ralph Engelstad was fined $1.5 million by the Nevada Gaming Control Board in 1989 after throwing birthday parties for Adolf Hitler inside a secret room of Nazi memorabilia at his Strip hotel.
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.
A. Thomas, Jr. and J.D. Gabaldon, Las Vegas: The Fabulous First Century (2003); H. Rothman, Neon Metropolis: How Las Vegas Started the Twenty-First Century (2002); A. Balboni, Southern Italians and Eastern European Jews: Cautious Cooperation in Las Vegas Casinos, 1940–1967; H.K. Rothman and M. David (eds.), The Grit beneath the Glitter: Tales from The Real Las Vegas (2001); S. Denton and R. Morris, The Money and the Power: The Making of Las Vegas and Its Hold on America, 1947–2000 (2001); D. Littlejohn and E. Gran, The Real Las Vegas: Life beyond the Strip (1999).
Feldberg, Sarah. "Viva Las (Oscar) Goodman". Forward Magazine, January 23, 2015.