At first thought, the image of Las Vegas as an active Jewish community may be a challenge to conjure up. However, beyond the glitzy facade there is indeed a regular community where people raise families with Jewish values; a community where Jewish holidays and rites of passage are celebrated. Young people become a bar/bat mitzvah, Passover is celebrated, and the Torah is read. In the early 1900s, small numbers of Jewish pioneers arrived in Las Vegas. There was no organized place for Jews to meet on the Sabbath or Hebrew school for the children. Then as the Jewish community grew in numbers, the need for a religious institution was created. From the 1930s to the early 1970s, there was only one synagogue and that was Temple Beth Sholom. In the 1970s, the population explosions spurred a tremendous growth in the Jewish community and in 1974, Congregation Ner Tamid became the second temple. I arrived in 1988 to be the congregations spiritual leader. During the following decades, I witnessed the blossoming of the Las Vegas Jewish tradition.
In 2017, the actual population of Jews was estimated to be over 70,000. The list has 27 congregations and includes a wide spectrum of Jewish practices: Conservative, Orthodox, Re-constructionist, Chabad, Young Israel, Kollel and more. The musical side of the religious community is equally diverse and ranges from an established musical group called the Shabbatones to the uplifting vocals of traditional male and female cantors.
Jewish life is encouraged by an estimated 40 rabbis, four Jewish Day Schools, a Jewish Community Center, a number of kosher restaurants and a Jewish newspaper and a magazine. There are also numerous Jewish community organizations that promote generosity and care for others.
In keeping with the Las Vegas population, there is the occasional celebrity event or sighting after all celebrities have families too. In the history of Temple Beth Sholom is the 1959 wedding of Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fischer. Personally, I’ve officiated at lifecycle events where I have to do a double take because either a local or national celebrity is in attendance. It’s not often that one might hear Wayne Newton deliver a eulogy! Nevertheless, lifecycle events remain cherished gatherings of family and friends.
For the thousands of Jews who live in Las Vegas, we find it easy to avail ourselves of a community rich in celebration and programs. Yes, it is easy to assimilate and to hide. Unlike some parts of the country, there is no specific Jewish neighborhood. But for those who continue to express and enjoy their love of Judaism, the choice and opportunities abound.
-Contributed by Rabbi Sanford Akselrad
Related manuscript collections
Temple Beth Sholom Records, 1945-2015. MS-00711.
Congregation Ner Tamid Records, 1974-2016. MS-00812.
Jewish Federation of Las Vegas Records, 1978-2012. MS-00602.
Collection on the Las Vegas Jewish Community, 1964-2006. MS-00426.
UNLV University Libraries Photographs of the Jewish Community of Southern Nevada, PH-00389.
- Transcript of roundtable interview with members of Midbar Kodesh, April 19, 2015. OH-02461.
- Video, Roundtable discussion with members of Midbar Kodesh, April 19, 2015
- Video, Roundtable discussion with members of Temple Beth Sholom, January 14, 2015
- Video, Temple Sinai oral history roundtable, April 26, 2016
- Videos, Growing up Jewish in Las Vegas panel discussions, January and February 2016