Taking a Gambol Outside Sin City

It's been called America's fastest growing Jewish community, a city that's home to some 70,000 Jews, up from 20,000 just 15 years ago.

Las Vegas may seem like an odd place for spirituality, but it boasts 23 synagogues and four mikvahs within a short drive of the Strip.

Numbers it may have, but the rate of Jewish affiliation with area synagogues is low, says Rabbi Shea Harlig, regional director of Chabad of Southern Nevada. "Few people move here to find spirituality," he says, "and fewer are searching for it."

Harlig speculates it's because many Jewish residents of Vegas have already built Jewish communities in other cities like New York and Chicago. "They don't want to get involved as much in the Jewish community here," he laments.

Harlig and his wife Dina arrived in the city 20 years ago and helped to create five Chabad centers as well as Desert Torah Academy, a school with 175 kids that received a new, state-of-the-art campus a few months ago. There's close to 1,000 children enrolled in the valley's four Jewish day schools and Jewish life is vibrant here, says Elliot Karp, president of the Jewish Federation of Las Vegas.

"This is as normal a Jewish community as Cincinnati, where I came from," he says. "For people who come to Las Vegas, it's like traveling to Disney World, but for those of us who live here, it's a regular city, anytown America.

"Is there spirituality? Sure! That's why we have 23 congregations. On Yom Ha'atzmaut celebrations, 5,000 to 6,000 people turn out at our events. The notion that the people who live here are like the visitors who come here is just not true," he says.

There's no denying that the Strip is the core feature in Las Vegas, its neon lights attracting Jewish visitors in their thousands. "Not one Shabbat goes by when we don't have guests come through here, for leisure or work," Harlig says.

But Lady Luck doesn't shine on all those visitors, and each year a few fall victim to the vices for which Las Vegas Boulevard has become famous. "Some gamble, get into trouble and land in jail," he reflects. "About once a year, we get a call from a Jewish individual in this situation, and when we do, we help hook them up with an attorney and provide them with kosher food and visits with a chaplain."

The magnetism of the Strip doesn't appeal to everyone, and on a recent visit, I was determined to discover the true face of Nevada — the one without the heavy coat of makeup it wears on the Boulevard.

I learned that the Nevada desert is a place of beauty, colorful legends, wildlife and handsome cowboys. You don't have to drive far to find yourself surrounded by shimmering mountains, red-hued canyons and perfect silence.

Just outside of Vegas, for example, lies 1.2 million acres of desert wildlife refuge, part of which is the Red Rock Canyon.

On horseback, you get a close-up look at the desert and the life it contains. I saddled up with two cowboys for a trail ride on a path that snaked its way up the mountainside, past Joshua trees and cacti. Burros, or wild donkeys, eyed our procession of horses warily from a distance, and a pair of hawks screeched as they dipped and dived into the canyon below us.

With the wind in my ears and the gentle undulation of obedient horses beneath my hips, the Strip felt light years away.

On a drive two hours northwest of Vegas, I passed mines, some operational and others abandoned, testifying to the wealth of mineral resources in the Mojave Desert.

I crossed the border into California to see Death Valley National Park, marveling at the beauty of its five mountain ranges. Alongside the highway the hills are full of color: knees of cream give way to creased thighs of red, orange and brown.

It's a hot place where eggs can fry instantly on the sidewalk in the summer.

Like the sliding rocks, it is a mystery of movement that continues to stymie and perplex to this day. On a dry, clay lake bed, 100-pound rocks move substantial distances every couple of years, leaving a clear trail in their wake.

"We think the wind somehow moves them, but we can't figure out what the lubricant is," says Bob Greenburg, an interpretive ranger.

The evidence of elemental natural forces at work is everywhere in the Mojave Desert. But you have to leave the Strip to find it.


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