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Why Did The UNLV Libraries Initiate The Southern Nevada Jewish Community Digital Heritage Project?

The history of the Jewish people in Las Vegas in many ways parallels the history of Las Vegas. Special Collections in the UNLV University Libraries documents the history of Las Vegas and Southern Nevada. We collect, preserve, and make accessible rare or unique sources of information about our region’s people and environment. High school and college students, faculty, journalists, film makers, and the general public from around the country regularly use primary sources in our collections to investigate and create new knowledge about our region.  Without our efforts, our region’s history might be in danger of loss.

Essential to our region’s history is the role of Jewish people in building Las Vegas and the increasing numbers of Jews that call Las Vegas home. Approximately 80,000 Jews currently live in the Las Vegas area. The first known Jewish person in Las Vegas was Solomon Nunes Carvalho, part of John C. Fremont’s 1853 expedition party. One of the town’s first settlers, Adolph Levy had a grocery on Fremont Street as early as 1906. By the 1930s, there were more than twenty Jewish families in Las Vegas. Many were involved in the clothing business, such as the Hechts, Sam Lipkin, Samuel Friedman, and Louis Weiner. Others, such as Mike Gordon, Ira Goldring, Abraham Schur, and the Mack family invested in several kinds of businesses: construction companies, banks, groceries, law firms, freight businesses, bars, etc. Early families were drawn to Las Vegas by economic opportunities. In 1931 in the back of a store, the families started the “Sons and Daughters of Israel,” which eventually developed into Temple Beth Sholom in 1958.

In the 1940s more Jews moved to Southern Nevada looking for respectability in the legal gambling business. Many of them had found their way into gambling during Prohibition and the desperate 1930s. They infused capital and managerial expertise into the growing casino industry, helping it grow from upstart to establishment. Jews had a hand in building the El Cortez, Circus Circus, Caesars Palace, Desert Inn, Dunes, Flamingo, Sahara, Aladdin, Riviera, Sands, and Tropicana. Some were notorious figures, such as Moe Dalitz, Bugsy Siegel, or Meyer Lansky. Since the ascendancy of corporate ownership in the 1970s-1980s, Jewish individuals have continued to contribute to gaming. Sheldon Adelson (Las Vegas Sands), Steve Wynn (Wynn Resorts), and Stuart Mason (builder of LVH, Bally’s, MGM Grand, and Venetian) are examples.

Jewish individuals have been prominent in civic life and politics as well. Irwin Molasky initiated several building projects, including Sunrise Hospital in 1958. Hank Greenspun founded the Las Vegas Sun, mediated an agreement that desegregated Las Vegas, and owned land that eventually became Green Valley. Edyth and Lloyd Katz ran desegregated movie theaters and were active in community projects. Oscar Goodman, followed by his wife Carolyn, have served as mayors of Las Vegas. Prominent politicians have included U.S. Senator Chic Hecht and U.S. Representative Shelley Berkley.

John Marschall, in the preface of his 2008 book Jews in Nevada,  lamented the lack of reliable primary sources to tell the southern story. The Jewish community in Southern Nevada have a rich but different story that should be collected and brought to light. Now is our opportunity, as prominent leaders in the Jewish community and multiple organizations serving Jewish populations have approached us with interest in helping us collect and preserve this material so that it will survive and be accessible to future generations. Their connections, interest, and support will ensure our collecting efforts are successful.

Most pressing is the need to interview Southern Nevada Holocaust survivors; many of them have already told their stories about the Holocaust, but we are interested in capturing their Las Vegas stories. Multiple community partners have offered to help. Once online, the oral histories may be used to support Holocaust education, part of state content standards for 8th and 12th grades. These stories, told by fellow Southern Nevada residents, may help Clark County students connect more immediately with this history.

We expect this digital collection to be used not only by the Jewish community in Las Vegas but by anyone interested in the history of the Las Vegas area, especially since documentation will touch upon all aspects of Las Vegas’ development. It will provide a unique perspective into understanding the region’s growth and diversity, covering early settlements, city development, philanthropy, politics, casinos, and religion. If the site receives as many visitors as our “Dreaming the Skyline” project, we may expect about 20,000 unique visitors a year.