Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Jewish Community of Vegas, Stays in Vegas! Jews of Nevada

When the territory now known as Nevada was acquired in 1848 after the Mexican War, “Forty-Niners”, headed west to mine for gold. By the late 1870s, there were about 1,000 Jews in Nevada, although very few were actual miners. Almost every area of settlement, such as Genoa, Virginia City, Austin, Eureka and Hamilton, had retail stores owned by Jews, where people purchased clothing and dry goods. When even ten Jews settled in one area, a Hebrew Benevolent Society was established to help the needy, arrange prayer services on the High Holidays and purchase land for the purpose of Jewish burial. While, until more recently, the Jewish population of Nevada did not exceed 1% of the state’s total population, Jews were always represented in civil leadership.

In addition to mining, Nevada is renowned for its gambling casinos. Legalized gambling ended in 1911, but was reinstated in 1931, since Nevada’s citizens fled the state during the harsh conditions of the Great Depression. (Divorce was legalized later that year as well). As a result, Las Vegas became the entertainment and gambling capital of the world. Gambling’s underbelly also brought organized crime, which also featured some famous Jews.

Although the first synagogue in Nevada, affiliated with the Reform movement, was founded in 1876, the first synagogue building was not erected (in Reno) until 1921. The next one was built in Las Vegas, in 1963. The Reno synagogue brought the first resident rabbi to Nevada in 1932, Rabbi Hersh Opoczynski, who anglicized his name to Harry Tarlow. He and his wife opened the first boarding house for those seeking legal divorces.

But the main narrative of Nevada’s Jews is linked to the proliferation of gambling casinos in Las Vegas between 1947 and 1967. Ubiquitous entertainment centers such as Caesars Palace, Desert Inn, Flamingo, Sahara, Aladdin, Riviera, Sands and Tropicana were all Jewish owned, and expanded greatly more recently, with the arrival of Sheldon Adelson’s Venetian and Steve Wynn’s eponymous casino. This expansion resulted in the exponential growth of Las Vegas’ Jewish community. As of 2007, Vegas supported 19 synagogues of all stripes. A $25 million donation from Sheldon and Miriam Adelson funded the creation of 3 Jewish day schools and a high school. In 2017, the Jewish population of Nevada was recorded as 76,300.

Nevada was officially welcomed into the Union, in the midst of the U.S. Civil War, on October 31, 1864.

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