High Holy Days In Unholy Spaces
October 07, 2011

LAS VEGAS -- Last Wednesday night, the regular assortment of local gamblers sat in front of the slot machines at Texas Station casino. They pulled the levers, pushed the buttons, and hoped for a win. But some 200 people came into the casino looking for something else: Services for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year.

Just around the corner from the smoky slots, one of the Texas Station ballrooms was transformed into a make shift synagogue. It was the adopted space of a local Jewish congregation.

A choir sang new year's prayers with a piano accompaniment. The rabbi and cantor stood on a traditional bimah, or platform, with the Torah behind them in a wooden ark.

Still, the podium bore the Texas Station logo, and the rock music played in the hallway outside.

Photo by Jude Joffe-Block
The congregation P'nai Tikvah transformed a Texas Station ballroom into what looked like a traditional synagogue sanctuary.

The rabbi of this congregation, Yocheved Mintz, will be the first to admit that a casino hotel is a strange venue for the holiest days of the Jewish calendar. The holiday that begins on Friday, Yom Kippur, is about atoning for last year’s sins.

But Mintz got over her reservations.

“A sanctuary is something that is made holy if you make it holy, so it can be any place,” she said.

Her congregation, known as P’nai Tikvah, doesn’t have their own building. And for the High Holy Days, Mintz wanted a large space that would house her congregants as well as Jews looking for services just at this one time of the year.

“Our numbers swell, and we work to get people to come,” Mintz said. “This year, we are not even charging for tickets.”

She had trouble finding a community hall she could rent for a religious event. Texas Station, on the other hand, was affordable and could hold a crowd.

“They are able to accommodate as large as we are going to grow, so that is a good thing,” Mintz said. “I don't ever want to turn anyone down.”

Mick Axelrod, 26, was one of the newcomers drawn to Rosh Hashanah services last week at Texas Station.

"It's very different from my upbringing," he said. "But on the other hand, it is sort of refreshing to see spirituality even where you wouldn’t expect to find it.”

Axelrod grew up going to an Orthodox Jewish school in New York. But since he moved to Las Vegas five years ago, he hasn’t joined a synagogue. Which makes him representative of the Jewish population here.

As Las Vegas grew in recent years, so too did its Jewish population--making it one of the fastest growing Jewish communities in the country. In the last few decades, about 20 Jewish congregations have cropped up in the area. But Jews here are less likely than in any other American city to actually join one.

The most recent study of the Las Vegas Jewish population was done in 2005, and it found that only 14 percent of Las Vegas Jews were affiliated with a synagogue. That's because most Jews here are transplants, just like their counterparts in many other southwestern cities, like Phoenix and San Diego.

Photo by Jude Joffe-Block
Registration for Rosh Hashanah services outside of the Texas Station ballroom.

“So as a result you frequently have far less of a cohesive community because there hasn’t really been a culture that has evolved over several generations,” said Steven Windmueller, a professor at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles who has written about Jews in the West.

According to Windmueller, the lack of Jewish history in the region can be a good thing.

“There is no doubt that people have created or are creating different forms of religious expression and participation,” he said. “And that is one of the marks I think here in the Southwest.”

There is a long history in Las Vegas of using casino space for religious events. Rabbi Mel Hecht has lived here since 1980, and used to lead services in the old casino, The Dunes.

“All I announced at services was, that if you go downstairs and you win something, you better come back up and make a donation,” Hecht said.

This year, he is leading service at the Sun Coast, a casino frequented by locals in the western part of town.

“You could see who the Jews were in the casino because when you walk in with a Torah, the eyes just follow you,” Hecht said. “And that is what I love about Las Vegas, there is very little pretense.”

When Yom Kippur begins at sundown on Friday, the holiday will be observed in at least three casinos.