Jews were in Las Vegas when it emerged as the gambling capital of the country, and Jews have been coming to Las Vegas ever since.
Many of Las Vegas most important developers have been Jewish, as is the current mayor. However, despite previous “guesses” by various community leaders, there are not 100,000 Jews in Las Vegas. The Jewish community numbers 89,000 persons today, living in 42,000 Jewish households — but of those 89,000 persons, only 67,500 are actually Jewish.
This makes Las Vegas the 23rd largest Jewish community in the country, a new survey that I recently released has found.
Nor is Las Vegas the fastest-growing Jewish community in the United States. From 1995-2005, the number of Jews in Las Vegas increased by 21 percent (from 55,600 to 67,500), or about 1,200 per year. At least six other large Jewish communities have been growing considerably faster: Atlanta (4,800 per year); West Palm Beach, Fla. (4,700); San Francisco (4,500); Washington (3,100); South Palm Beach, Fla. (2,400); and Phoenix (2,000).
Despite the existence of almost 20 synagogues and three Jewish day schools, levels of religiosity in Las Vegas are well below those in most other Jewish communities. Among about 50 comparison Jewish communities, Las Vegas has the lowest percentage of households who always or usually participate in a Passover seder (50 percent), always or usually light Sabbath candles (11 percent), and keep a kosher home (5 percent); the second-lowest percentage of households who have a mezuzah on the front door (55 percent); and the third-lowest percentage of households who always or usually light Chanukah candles (64 percent).
The 48 percent intermarriage rate is the fourth-highest of about 55 comparison Jewish communities. The 14 percent of Jewish households who reported current synagogue membership is the lowest of about 55 comparison Jewish communities.
Only 45 percent of Jewish children aged 5-12 attend formal Jewish educ! ation, t he second-lowest level of about 30 comparison Jewish communities. Only 11 percent of Jewish teenagers age 13-17 currently attend formal Jewish education, which also is the second-lowest of the comparison Jewish communities.
Two important factors emphasize the difficulty that the organized Jewish community in Las Vegas will face as it tries to develop a more committed community. First, Las Vegas is not “home” for many Jewish households. Only 1 percent of adults in Jewish households in Las Vegas were born there and only 21 percent of Jewish households have lived in the community for 20 or more years.
Also, 5 percent of Jewish households said they would definitely move out of Las Vegas within the next three years, the fifth-highest percentage of about 30 comparison Jewish communities. People are simply not “rooted” in the area: Sixty-nine percent of Jewish respondents reported that they feel “not very much” or “not at all” a part of the Las Vegas Jewish community.
Second, the study shows the Jewish population of Las Vegas to be geographically dispersed and to have shifted location over the past decade, away from the central and southwestern parts of the city toward the northwest, southeast and northeast. It’s clearly more difficult to serve a Jewish community that is dispersed and is shifting location.
Almost all Jewish communities the size of Las Vegas, and many that are significantly smaller, have Jewish campuses often housing a Jewish federation, a Jewish community center and other Jewish institutions, such as a Jewish nursing home, Jewish independent and assisted living facilities for the elderly, one or more Jewish day schools, a coordinating agency for Jewish education, a Holocaust memorial, a Jewish museum and a Jewish Family Service building.
Las Vegas currently has its federation, JCC, and Jewish Family Service Agency operating from office buildings. The survey points to the need to establish such institutions on a Jewish community campus to “a! nchor” t he community.
The organized Jewish community nationally needs to recognize the special challenges faced by Las Vegas — and the United Jewish Communities federation umbrella group has done just that — and local Jewish philanthropists need to react to this need, as Sheldon Adelson — who funded this study through the Milton I. Schwartz Hebrew Academy of Las Vegas and the Jewish Federation of Las Vegas — and others are doing.
With appropriate attention, Las Vegas could become a Jewish oasis.
Ira M. Sheskin is director of the Jewish Demography Project at the Sue and Leonard Miller Center for Contemporary Judaic Studies at the University of Miami, and an associate professor of geography at the same institution.