It was the discovery of springs in Nevada's barren flats in the 1800s that drew Jewish gold-seekers to the state's capital, Carson City, which lies several hundred miles northwest of Las Vegas. With the construction of railroads linking Las Vegas to Phoenix, Salt Lake City and Southern California, large numbers of Jews settled in Las Vegas by the turn of the century. One of them was the Polish-born Adolph Levy who moved from Illinois to start a dry goods store. In the 1930s, his niece, Sallie Gordon, gave birth to Las Vegas's first Jewish baby.
When the rough and tumble gold rush petered out, a more glamorous industry burst onto the scene. The first casino opened in 1931, and the glitzy, lucrative business soon caught the attention of New York mobsters Meyer Lansky and Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, who opened the iconic Flamingo Hotel in 1946. In the 1950s, Ben Jaffe built the Cuban-flavored Tropicana on a 40-acre parcel, and in the 1960s Jay Sarno and Nate Jacobson designed and constructed the Roman Empire-themed Caesars Palace. Despite their sinful trades (gambling and alcohol), Jewish casino and nightclub owners garnered civic respect by investing in the community. Bootlegger, racketeer and casino owner Moe Dalitz, 'mown as "Mr. Las Vegas," was honored as Humanitarian of the Year by the American Cancer Research Center and Hospital in 1976, and he received the ADL's Torch of Liberty award in 1982. When he died in 1989, he left his considerable fortune to 14 Las Vegas non-profit organizations.
Jews have been an integral part of non-casino life as well. Hank Greenspun was the editor and publisher of the Las Vegas Sun until his death in 1989. An early supporter of the State of Israel, he was active in real estate, developing Green Valley, which is part of Henderson, a suburban city within the Las Vegas metropolitan area. His family continues to control the majority of real estate there today. Another prominent real estate pioneer was Irwin Molasky, who built Las Vegas's first enclosed mall, the Boulevard, the first major hospital, Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center, and the first high-rise condominium.
Today, more than 75,000 Jews live in Las Vegas, and a vibrant Jewish world of religion and culture thrives. Las Vegas is home to 19 synagogues--three of which are Chabad centers--about 10 kosher restaurants, four Jewish day schools, a JCC and a popular annual Jewish film festival. Jews also play prominent roles in politics: Oscar Goodman served as mayor from 1999 to 2011, and his wife, Carolyn Goodman, succeeded him. Shelley Berkley served in the U.S. Congress from 1998 to 2011 and made an unsuccessful bid for the Senate in 2012.
Jews continue to be leaders in the casino industty. During the 1990s, Steve Wynn built and revamped many of the hotels on the Las Vegas Strip, including The Mirage, Treasure Island, the Bellagio (See photograph on page 62), Wynn and Encore. …