Las Vegas: Lots of Jews, Not Much Judaism

Shmuel Rosner
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Shmuel Rosner

LAS VEGAS - This desert city of casinos and replicas of tourist sites from around the world may be a magnet for new Jewish residents, but the author of a new study is hoping that it does not herald the future of Jewish life in the United States.

According to a comprehensive study released recently by Dr. Ira Sheskin, of the University of Miami, Las Vegas is now home to the country's 23rd-largest Jewish community. Although the number of Jews here has increased by 21 percent in the past decade, their leaders, as well as many leaders of the American Jewish community as a whole, had hoped for even faster growth. The Jewish population of Las Vegas rose from 55,000 in 1995 to 67,000 in 2005, far below the forecast of 100,000, and reflecting slower growth than Atlanta, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

Quantity is not the only thing Sheskin's study found lacking. His research found that the Jews of Las Vegas are less observant and less connected to Judaism than the vast majority of U.S. Jews. Only 50 percent report attending a Passover Seder, only 14 percent belong to a synagogue and only a minority light Shabbat or Hanukkah candles or keep kosher.

The one category where the Jews of Las Vegas do excel is intermarriage, with 48 percent of all currently married Jewish respondent/spouse couples being mixed. For the 35-49 age group, 71 percent of all couples with one Jewish respondent are intermarried. Among the 42,000 households with Jews, only 67,000 of the 89,000 individuals in total self-identified as Jews. The number who declined to identify themselves with any particular Jewish stream was the highest for any Jewish community in the U.S. In general, non-identifying Jews are those who are most alienated from their Judaism.

Last month Candace Bushnell, whose writings inspired the TV show "Sex and the City," was the featured speaker at the Women's Philanthropy annual United Luncheon of the United Jewish Community Federation of Las Vegas. It was held at the Wynn Las Vegas resort, owned by Steve Wynn, one of the city's most important hotel developers. Vegas has never been at a loss for Jewish bankrollers. Sheldon Adelson, one of the richest men in the country, underwrote Sheskin's study and is a major philanthropist in the Jewish arena.

The city's history is filled with Jewish businessmen, as well as criminals both large and small, with a strong connection to Israel. Bugsy Siegel, owner of the Flamingo Hotel in its early years, gave money to the Haganah, while Las Vegas Sun publisher Hank Greenspun was convicted of smuggling guns to Israel in 1948. Today's Vegas Jews, however, have broken that link. Only 36 percent say they have an emotional connection to Israel, putting them in 28th place among the 30 U.S. communities studied by Sheskin.

The transiency of the community works against the development of stable Jewish institutions, as does the geographic spread of the population. There is no single area identified as Jewish in Las Vegas, and Jews are distant from each other, from their synagogues and from Jewish community centers.

Sheskin's recommendations to the community's leaders reads like a laundry list of instructions for reinforcing a city's Jewish community: Strengthen the organized community, increase services for children and the aged, encourage a connection to Israel, improve awareness - and the list goes on. The first item on the agenda must be locating the city's Jews, since only 25 percent are on the community's mailing list.