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Oy Vegas! Sin City gets kosher

Rising Jewish population feels at home

LAS VEGAS -- Meyer Bodoff had run Jewish federations in Worcester, Mass., and in Portland, Maine, but nothing could prepare him for taking over the one in Las Vegas four years ago. "We get 600 new Jews a month in Las Vegas," Bodoff said. "I didn't see 600 new Jews move into my area in the last 10 years of my career. It was a total culture shock."

The influx of new residents to the Las Vegas region has made it not only the nation's fastest-growing locale but also North America's fastest-growing Jewish community, according to national and local Jewish leaders. Although their biblical forebears wandered in frustration for decades in the cruel, hot desert after escaping Egyptian slavery -- as this week's holiday of Passover recalls -- today thousands are finding the air-conditioned Nevada desert to be downright homey.

An estimated 80,000 Jews live in the Las Vegas area, comprising about 5 percent of the overall population of 1.5 million people and double the number from a decade ago, according to a population study by Bodoff's federation.

A decade ago, only a few synagogues existed in the area and finding a kosher chicken at a local market was not easy. Now, there are 18 synagogues, a kosher supermarket, and a robust Jewish Federation that expects more than 5,000 people to attend an Israeli Independence Day celebration in May.

A congresswoman, the mayor, two of the most prominent casino owners, and the publisher of one major local daily newspaper are all Jewish. And restaurants in two major casino-hotels have added Passover items to their menus for tomorrow and Tuesday, when Jews hold seders, the ceremonial meals at which the story of the holiday is retold.

"Jews come here for the same reason everyone else does -- for affordable housing, great weather, no state income tax, lots of opportunity," said Rabbi Jeremy Weiderhorn of Midbar Kodesh, a synagogue that grew from six families to more than 300 in the past decade. "Now we are starting to get the reputation of having a real community. The word is getting out there, so people are starting to come."

US Representative Shelley Berkley, Democrat of Nevada, who is Jewish, agreed that the reputation is spreading far.

"Even in Israel, when I tell them I'm from Las Vegas, everybody from the taxi driver to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon all know about it and they love it," Berkley said. "It is going to be one of the places people think of when they think of a Jewish community in the western United States."

That will be a dramatic shift from where things were when Berkley and her family arrived in 1962 from New York. Back then, there was only one synagogue, Temple Beth Shalom, and the most famous Jewish person in Las Vegas was mobster Bugsy Siegel.

Fast-forward to 2004, and the Jewish Federation, an umbrella organization for groups and causes in the city, expects its annual budget to exceed $2 million for the first time. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak of Israel starred at the annual fund-raising gala last month. The Federation offices also are home to a Holocaust museum and library.

As recently as the early 1990s, there had been only two Jewish principals in the history of the Clark County School District. Teachers and administrators frequently would schedule exams and sports events on important Jewish holidays, associate superintendent Edward Goldman said, and parents and school officials would freely utter anti-Semitic epithets when demands were made to change the dates. Nowadays, there are enough Jewish teachers and administrators to hold regular social events, and district policy prohibits the scheduling of tests or "single-item events" like games or dances on important Jewish holidays.

Along with a rise in sensitivity, the Jewish community has seen an increase in available products and services important to the faith. The Kosher Mart, a supermarket, opened last year, and several conventional supermarkets now provide kosher meats and a selection of boxed goods. Every Krispy Kreme doughnut shop in town is kosher, as are a pizza place, a Mediterranean restaurant, and a Chinese eatery called Shalom Hunan.

Two hotels, the Four Seasons and the Rio, have dedicated kosher kitchens available for private functions and conventions, and most other properties will bring in kosher foods made elsewhere even as they usually bar outside catering in other circumstances.

"It's a very good thing to have as far as being Jewish-community friendly," said Tamir Shanel, food and beverage director at the Four Seasons, who said the kitchen cost $400,000 to install.

Tourists, too, have more options. The Hard Rock Hotel's Simon Kitchen & Bar offers Jewish haute cuisine tomorrow and Tuesday for Passover, including a salmon carpaccio and a chicken liver crostini on matzo. At Wolfgang Puck's Spago restaurant at the Caesars Palace resort, the menu on the same days will include kosher roast chicken and matzo ball soup made from the century-old recipe of executive chef David Robins' great-grandmother. The soup accounted for half the soup orders when it was on the menu last Passover, Robins said. Still, as varied as the options have become for Jews in Las Vegas, the community faces tough challenges. Only about 10,000 of the city's 80,000 Jews belong to a synagogue. "Part of that seems to be that people who come here as retirees come with an attitude that they've been associated with their old synagogue all their lives and they're not interested anymore," said Robert Mirisch, president of Temple Beth Shalom, which grew from 120 families to 700 families since 1997. "They just want to play golf."

The local Jewish Community Center, typically the linchpin of an active community in most areas of the nation, offers some programs but lacks a recreation facility or a campus. And both Shanel, from the Four Seasons, and Rio Hotel catering manager Darlene Williams noted that their kosher kitchens are seldom used.

"We already have about as many Jews as Cleveland, Detroit, and Baltimore, but those cities have had 100 years to grow into what they are," Bodoff said. "We've had about 10."

To counter this, and to compete with all the unusual distractions of a place dubbed Sin City, the Federation is getting creative. In December, it held an adults-only Hanukkah mixer dubbed the Vodka Latkes party at OPM, a trendy nightclub on the Strip owned by Wolfgang Puck, where the drink du jour was a "Hanukkah martini" that contained rum, brandy, butterscotch schnapps, and eggnog.

But perhaps the most novel event will be this summer's Kosher Poker event, a private poker tournament at the Sunset Station casino put on by the Federation's young adults group. Bodoff said he hesitated about whether to support Kosher Poker, then decided it was clever in an only-in-Vegas sort of way.

"We have the same job as any other Jewish Federation in the country, to build a Jewish community -- except we have to do it in Las Vegas," Bodoff said. "We try to be unique in the way we approach it because this is the most unique city in the world."

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