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An exodus to Vegas

Jewish professionals flock to the city, but being observant can be tough.

May 13, 2003|Jerry Hirsch | Times Staff Writer

Las Vegas — Las Vegas

More than 3,000 years after the Exodus, the Jews have returned to the desert, this time settling into sprawling new subdivisions with greenbelts and swimming pools and taking jobs in gleaming office buildings.

This is not some Zionist dream to convert the Judean desert into the new land of milk and honey. This is the 21st century version of Sodom and Gomorrah.

This is Lost Wages, Sin City, the U.S. capital of the gambling and sex trades. It is also home to the fastest-growing Jewish population in the United States.

The statistics are staggering. Hundreds of Jews pour into Las Vegas each month, primarily to feed a shortage of doctors, teachers, accountants and other professionals created by the transformation of the once-small tourist town into the nation's fastest-growing metropolis.

The Jewish community grew by nearly 20,000 residents, or 35%, to 75,000 from 1995 to 2000, according to the American Jewish Year Book, and is estimated to have crossed 80,000 this year, giving Las Vegas a Jewish population bigger than those of either Orange or San Diego counties.

Where once Jews made up just a tiny fraction of the population in Nevada's Clark County, they are now approaching 5%, about double the national average.

Las Vegas has kosher restaurants, two Jewish newspapers and two Jewish grade schools. It has a Jewish mayor, a Jewish congresswoman and a cadre of Internet-ordained rabbis who cater to the town's 24-hour wedding trade. Several real estate agents specialize in finding homes for observant Jews within walking distance of any one of the community's 20 synagogues.

When pediatric gastroenterologist Howard Baron moved to Las Vegas a decade ago, his wife, Bonni, joined a co-op of several observant families to order kosher meat shipments from Los Angeles and Phoenix. Today Bonni can get just about any food product locally -- one Albertson's has even added a kosher meat counter and deli.

Baron, 42, came to Las Vegas because it was a city of opportunity, a place desperately in need of medical specialists like him. After finishing a fellowship at UCLA 10 years ago, he could have returned to his home state of Minnesota to join a medical partnership making $80,000 a year. Instead he accepted a $120,000 offer from a practice in Las Vegas, a salary made even more attractive because Nevada has no state income tax.

Baron, his wife and their young daughter, Alayna, settled in the Green Valley neighborhood of Las Vegas. Technically a part of Henderson, Nev., this community within an easy drive of the Strip is characterized by manicured lawns, bike paths and greenbelts, which, if not for the surrounding desert, could be mistaken for Irvine. A few years later, the Barons' second child, Zoe, was born.

Initially Baron wondered if his family could settle into the type of Jewish life he and Bonni had grown up with in Minneapolis. The family attends religious services at least once a week and keeps Friday nights clear, reserving the evening to light the traditional Sabbath candles and say the ritual blessings over wine and the braided challah bread.

"To be observant here presents challenges compared to other cities where generation after generation of Jewish families have lived," said Baron, who helped found his neighborhood synagogue, Midbar Kodesh (Holy Desert) Temple. "You have to be a pioneer. Your children can't just show up at youth activities, you have to create the youth group."

Baron is a pioneer in other ways too, serving as a modern-day Moses leading a new group of Jews into the desert. "My in-laws moved here about five years ago," Baron said. "My mother just arrived here, a year and a half after retiring from a job she held in our Minneapolis suburb for 27 years.

"One of my wife's second cousins moved here a few years ago from Minneapolis," Baron added, noting that the cousin's parents also just bought a home across town.

Almost from the beginning, Jews have played a role in Las Vegas' development. A century ago when the town was a railroad depot, a handful of merchants were the first to arrive, attracted by the commercial opportunities typical of the towns that dotted the Old West.

Yet it was a second migration -- the arrival of a Jewish band of mobsters with Mafia ties in the 1940s -- that turned Las Vegas into something more than a way station in the middle of the desert. The manic murderer and Hollywood wannabe Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel and mob associates such as Meyer Lansky, David Berman and Gus Greenbaum built hotels and casinos and persuaded their cronies to run them. These were members of the "tribe" -- Jewish dealers, bellmen, cabdrivers, cooks and other blue-collar workers who could be trusted to keep quiet about shady business dealings.

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