Jewry and Judaism in Nevada

Courtesy of the Nevada Historical Society

Adolph Sutro imagined a long tunnel draining the Comstock mines. Initiated in 1869 and completed in 1878, the project is an engineering feat, but it did little to affect the development of the mines. Sutro left Nevada and became mayor of San Francisco.

Virginia City, ca. 1880, was a bustling, international capital of mining.

Photograph and caption courtesy of Todd DeMeza.

In 2006, this plaque was placed in the former location of Jacob Davis's tailor shop on North Virginia Street in Downtown Reno. Davis invented copper-riveted jeans in 1871.

Photograph courtesy of John Marschall.

Milton Badt (1884-1966), attorney, District Judge for Elko County and Chief Justice of the Nevada Supreme Court.

Photo courtesy of John Marschall.

Reno's Art Deco style El Cortez hotel, built by Abe Zetooney in 1931, included a casino and popular nightclub, the Trocadero. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Jews were among the first to provide the essential mercantile infrastructure for Nevada's mining towns and camps. Their numbers grew to nearly a thousand by the late 1870s. Even as the state's population declined from 1880 to 1910, small numbers of Jews or a single Jewish-owned store could be found in nearly every town and mining camp. The first permanent synagogue was erected in Reno in 1921 and the second in Las Vegas in 1963. The Jewish population of Southern Nevada greatly increased in the last quarter of the twentieth century and supported nineteen synagogues.

Jewish merchants were early arrivals in Genoa (1858), Virginia City (1859), Austin (1862), Hamilton (1865), and in the small towns along the rail lines from Reno to Elko after 1869. They led the dry goods and clothing business in the nineteenth century and thereafter were found in every line of work. Although only a small minority were physically engaged in mining, Adolph Sutro was one made famous by his daring four-mile tunnel from the Carson River to the Comstock (1878).

Where they had at least ten male worshipers, Jews routinely formed a Hebrew Benevolent Society to aid the needy, and they regularly observed High Holidays. Jews secured burial grounds in Austin, Eureka, Reno, and sections of the municipal cemeteries in Carson City, and later in Las Vegas. Eureka's one hundred Jews formed the first official Reform congregation in 1876. Despite larger numbers in Virginia City, the next congregation did not coalesce until 1914 in Reno.

Nevada Jews rarely exceeded one percent of the total population until modern times, but they exercised positions of civic leadership and business. When Nevada achieved statehood in 1864, Rabbi Herman Bien, rancher Henry Epstein and Austin merchant Meyer Rosenblatt were among the state's first assemblymen. Jews continued to be well represented in the state legislature and court systems into the twenty-first century. Quite commonly Jews were among the charter members and officers of fraternal organizations, from which they were often excluded in other parts of the country. They also made their mark in the railroad towns of northern Nevada. In Reno in 1871, Jacob W. Davis invented the copper-riveted work pants that became Levi's 501 jeans. The Reinhart families established the largest mercantile stores from Winnemucca to Elko, and the Morris Badt and Gabriel Cohn families were substantial merchants and ranchers in northeastern Nevada. In southeastern Nevada at Pioche, Dr. Henry Bergstein was elected assemblyman from Lincoln County. He became author of Nevada's first laws on medical practice and co-founder of the state's medical society.

Jewish women were more likely to be independent business entrepreneurs than their percentage of the population would predict. Sarah Loryea had her own millinery shop at Carson City in 1861 and, in Virginia City, she opened the Loryea House Hotel. Sarah Levanthal, Regina Moch, and Matilda A. Ashim were operators of their own dining establishments at Eureka in 1879. In the twentieth century, Las Vegas women also were in business for themselves. Fanny Soss owned and operated two fashion shops and Ethyl Rappaport operated a liquor store in the 1940s. Southern Nevada Jewish women became organizers of Holocaust education in the schools and major philanthropists in their own right. Women also taught Hebrew and religious practices at Sabbath schools statewide.

After the precipitous decline in ore production and population, public officials searched for ways to diversify the economy and attract tourists and new citizens. An attempt to colonize eastern European Jews at Wellington between 1897 and 1902 failed due to treachery and bad weather. Adolph Livingston organized tourist-attracting boxing matches. Legal gambling came to an end in Nevada in 1911, but enforcement was spotty and loopholes abounded. Nathan "Jew Nick" Abelman, who had followed the rush to Goldfield in 1906, ran saloons with a legal gambling club for anyone prepared to pay the token membership fee at the door. Abelman, Abe Zetooney, and the Bulasky brothers were among the first managers and owners of casinos at Reno, when the legislature legalized gambling in 1931. By then, Reno's Jewish population of several hundred had its own synagogue Temple Emanu-El (1921) and its first resident rabbi, Hirsch Opoczynski (1932), who changed his name to Harry Tarlow. He and his wife opened the first of two kosher boarding houses for Jewish divorce seekers.

The involvement of Reno Jews in the hotel and gambling industry soon paled to that of their fellows in Las Vegas. Between 1947 and 1967 Jewish Americans—some with storied connections to organized crime—built or were the major owners of the Caesars Palace, Desert Inn, Dunes, Flamingo, Sahara, Aladdin, Riviera, Sands, and Tropicana hotel/casinos. More recently, Sheldon Adelson's Venetian and Steve Wynn's resort named after him were the only major Jewish casino holdings in Las Vegas. Many others, like the Mack, Wollman, Katz, and Greenspun families, contributed heavily to the development of Las Vegas as a tourist destination. Jews, statewide, also provided leadership in the civil rights movement.

Donations from the Jewish-owned hotels and casinos accounted for a significant portion of funds raised to build Las Vegas' first synagogue, Temple Beth Sholom, in 1963. At about the same time, its Reno counterpart experienced a schism resulting in the Reform Temple Sinai. A similar fate befell Beth Sholom, leading to the new Reform congregation, Temple Ner Tamid, in 1974. One of its most prominent donors was the controversial, but increasingly revered, Moe Dalitz.

Over the next quarter century Las Vegas Jewry grew to nearly 100,000. Although less than ten percent of the population was affiliated with a Jewish organization, by 2007 the city had nineteen congregations across the spectrum of Judaism. The Jewish Community Center of Southern Nevada and the local Jewish federation sponsored hundreds of programs on Jewish culture and tradition, as did thirty-six independent organizations. Kosher food options abounded. The area also boasted three Jewish day schools and construction on the first Jewish high school had begun, which was made possible by a $25 million donation from Dr. Miriam and Sheldon G. Adelson. Northern Nevada's population had five growing congregations but no cultural support system to match that of Las Vegas.

Jewish settlement and leadership in Nevada's early history contributed to a climate virtually devoid of anti-Semitism. In the 1990s, however, Reno's Temple Emanu-El was twice the object of Molotov cocktail vandalism.

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