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Las Vegas synagogues undergo building boom

One of the major effects of having the fastest growing Jewish population in America is the need for more synagogues and temples, and the Jewish community of Las Vegas is working diligently to meet that challenge.

 

Based on surveys conducted by the Jewish Federation of Las Vegas and others in the community, it is estimated that nearly 80,000 Jews currently reside in the Las Vegas-Henderson area. The Jewish influx has more than doubled in ten years.

Consequently, the number of Jewish congregations, which have grown with the population explosion - representing all denominations of Judaism - stands at 18, or more than twice the number of only a decade ago.

 

Many of these congregations conduct their services in whatever quarters are available to them, including storefronts, community centers, motels, and even church facilities. What began only a short time ago with a small number of worshipers in most of these makeshift synagogues and temples has generally ballooned into a congregation that is bursting at the seams in its present confines.

 

The result is the purchase of property and the construction of permanent synagogues and temples in the Las Vegas /Henderson areas. In fact, there are few congregations in Las Vegas that aren't planning to build their own facilities or add on to structures that were recently completed.

 

The trend toward constructing permanent new facilities has been under way for at least three years, with the completion of magnificent synagogue and temple edifices at congregations Midbar Kodesh Temple, Temple Beth Am, Chabad of Southern Nevada, Temple Beth Sholom, and Young Israel Aish HaTorah. But that was only the beginning.

 

Most of these congregations already have expansion plans, or phase two of their construction, while others are in the process of preparing for the ground-breaking of a new facility, or searching for appropriate property sites. With few exceptions, such as the two senior citizen congregations in Sun City Summerlin, new construction or expansion of synagogues and temples is a priority concern of the Las Vegas Jewish community.

 

Chabad of Summerlin, which began with a handful of worshipers in a storefront eight years ago, is the typical example of a congregation that is in dire need of a new and permanent synagogue. Congregation Ner Tamid has become equally cramped in a facility that has served its needs for 20 years, and Midbar Kodesh Temple, which completed a major construction project in March 2000, already is actively looking forward to a significant expansion of its building.

With rapidly escalating attendance at its traditional Sabbath services and its daily minyans twice a day, Chabad of Summerlin is "in desperate need of more expansive quarters," according to Rabbi Yisroel Schanowitz. He added that a continually growing Hebrew school, a variety of adult education programs, women's classes, and other community events, have resulted in the fact that the congregation has "outgrown what is now our third storefront synagogue."

 

Toward that end, Chabad of Summerlin last year purchased an undeveloped tract in a far corner of the Desert Shores Shopping Center. "We hope to begin construction of a permanent synagogue in June that will include a sanctuary, classrooms, a library, offices, and a mikvah," said Schanowitz. He added that completion of the multi-level facility is tentatively planned for next February.

 

"We raised a substantial amount of money to buy the property, which we now own outright. However, we are still short of construction money,"  Schanowitz explained.

 

Howard Perlman of Perlman Architects said the new Chabad of Summerlin synagogue will have "a very traditional design, with a balcony and an astonishing facade" built of Jerusalem stone. The stone, which has been donated, is being imported from Israel, and the structure will have 12 stained glass windows depicting the tribes of Israel.

 

Perlman, who has been an architect in Las Vegas for 30 years, also designed the new facilities for Chabad of Southern Nevada and Young Israel Aish HaTorah. He has assisted Midbar Kodesh Temple as well as other Jewish organizations in Las Vegas.

 

"In my opinion, the biggest problem in the community is the need for synagogue and temple facilities to accommodate the demand of a growing Jewish population," said Perlman, who has donated much of his time and talents to the synagogue projects. "Money is scarce. Budgets are tight. But the need is there, and in some cases it is critical.

 

"My thesis project at the University of Illinois was a synagogue. I have very strong feelings in that direction," Perlman said. "I'm a religious guy who believes in G-d. The Jewish community has been good to me, and it's nice to be able to give back when I can," Perlman commented, adding: "I don't believe in big cathedral-style structures. They can be kept rather simple, yet very beautiful and functional. After all, prayer is intimate and individualistic."

The need is becoming similarly critical at Congregation Ner Tamid, a Reform temple with a membership of "approximately 600 families," according to Executive Director Irv Duchowny. "We have been looking at various sites. We felt that based on the continuing growth of the Jewish population in Las Vegas, it is to our advantage - in order to better serve the community - to search for a new site." Duchowny explained that "when our current facility was built, about 20 years ago, it was wonderful. But we have become cramped, and with the Jewish population expanding in all directions we need to look toward a new facility." Currently, Duchowny states, Congregation Ner Tamid has found a "fabulous piece of land" in the area of the 215 and Valle Verde. While the land acquisition is still under final negotiation, it is hoped that the land procurement and building construction will be final by August 2006.

 

Among those congregations that have completed new synagogues within the last three years, several already have plans on the drawing boards for additions. Their time frames, however, are contingent on the availability of funding.

Temple Beth Sholom, which dedicated a $12 million sprawling edifice in September 2000, complete with classrooms, mikvah, ballrooms, and other facilities, has since then constructed a sizeable addition.

 

"We just added six classrooms last September for our pre-school and Hebrew school programs, giving us a total of 14 classrooms," said Robert Mirisch, executive director of Beth Sholom, a Conservative temple.

 

"We have also just completed our Warsaw Ghetto Remembrance Garden, which was formally dedicated on May 18, 2003," Mirisch added. The memorial project was built from paving stones actually taken from the Warsaw Ghetto.

 

At Midbar Kodesh Temple, another Conservative congregation, Rabbi Jeremy Wiederhorn referred to the building completed three years ago as "phase A." Wiederhorn explained that the structure was built to serve as a temporary sanctuary. "It consists of our offices, our school wing with eight classrooms, a chapel, gift shop, dairy kitchen, and a social hall." He said the social hall serves as the sanctuary until "phase B" is constructed.

 

"The decision was made to build the school before we construct the permanent sanctuary because the philosophy of the congregation has always been to make education the first priority," Wiederhorn added.

 

He said that the membership at Midbar Kodesh Temple has grown to approximately 300 families, an increase of 100 families since phase A was completed. Phase B will be completed within the next three to five years, the rabbi said. "In that phase, we will build our permanent sanctuary," which he explained will open into the social hall, enabling the temple to provide substantial additional seating when required.

 

"We will also add on anywhere from eight to 16 classrooms, and we hope to complete our meat kitchen at that time," Wiederhorn said.

The new facility at Temple Beth Am, a Reform congregation, is also only in the first phase of a two-stage project. "We already are designing plans for our second phase, although we may be three to four years away from the start of construction," said Rabbi Mel Hecht.

 

"Our facility is somewhat different from most of the others," he added, explaining that the first phase was constructed "primarily with community service as the priority. It is dedicated to pluralism," Hecht said.

"Our building serves as an adult senior day care center for all of the community, as well as for Sabbath and Jewish holiday services." Hecht noted that the facility is also available for catered affairs. "We have a great number of weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, parties, and dinners of various kinds. We rent out the building for those purposes.

 

"The plan and the hope is that whatever income is generated from those rentals, as well as monies derived from the congregation itself, combined with a mortgage, will be significant enough to offset whatever our financial needs will be for the second phase," Hecht explained.

 

He said the second phase will include a permanent sanctuary for Temple Beth Am. "It will consist of a multi-story building with classrooms and offices, as well as the sanctuary. This will provide for the congregation's predominant needs."

Hecht said he expects the Temple Beth Am school to eventually educate its student enrollment through either the fifth or sixth grade. "We have a master plan in which the buildings will complement one another, and we also have plans for underground parking," he added.

 

Hecht explained that due to the limited size of Temple Beth Am's property, "parking will not be sufficient once we go into the second phase, so we are exploring means to provide parking below our phase two building."

Rabbi Shea Harlig, of traditional Chabad of Southern Nevada, has an equally ambitious plan for expansion of his synagogue and its educational facilities. The Chabad school, Desert Torah Academy,  with a student enrollment of 152, currently provides classes from pre-school through grade 7.

"Next year we will add on classes through grade 8," Harlig stated, as he unveiled plans that will involve the demolition of an older building at the Chabad complex. The new project will provide more facilities for the school and add onto the synagogue's needs.

 

"Our plans for expansion will not be initiated until Chabad of Summerlin has met its funding needs for construction," Harlig emphasized. Harlig is the chief rabbi of the three Chabad congregations in Las Vegas.

 

The building that will be demolished was the original Chabad synagogue in Las Vegas, purchased in the early 1990s, which still serves as a chapel for daily morning and evening services. Harlig explained that the new structure, which will be adjacent to the multi-million dollar sanctuary and school that was completed less than three years ago, will serve primarily as the Chabad middle school.

 

"It will have a small sanctuary for daily morning and evening prayer services. But it will also contain classrooms, a gymnasium, a school library, a computer laboratory, and a science laboratory. In addition, we hope to have some guest rooms for those visiting for the Sabbath and holidays," Harlig said.

 

The third Chabad congregation, Chabad of Green Valley, is the newest. It recently moved into a storefront facility containing 2,700 square feet. "That will serve our needs for the time being," said Harlig's younger brother, Rabbi Mendy Harlig.

"But that's only a temporary move. We're going to need a permanent synagogue in our section of town, although we're probably four to five years away from construction," the younger Harlig stated.

 

"We presently can seat about 120 worshipers, although we have had as many as 150 for Purim and more than 200 for Chanukah."

 

But Mendy Harlig, who initiated a Hebrew school for beginners and bar/bas mitzvah preparation classes, already has witnessed the kind of growth that will eventually require a permanent synagogue. "We have 45 children attending our school, ages 4 to 12. We have three classes and three teachers on Sunday mornings and Tuesday afternoons. We also have women's classes that already have interested between 25 and 35 women on a regular basis," he said.

 

"Our space is comfortable for now, but I am already looking into possible sites for a permanent synagogue. In fact, there are two places I like, either of which would be an excellent location for us,"  Rabbi Mendy commented.

 

There are similar growth pangs at Congregation Adat Ami, where Rabbi/Cantor Gary Golbart is rapidly outgrowing the 6,000 square foot building that served as a bank before it became a sanctuary for the contemporary traditional synagogue.

"In addition to our sanctuary we have a kitchen and some classroom space. But we have already experienced cramped conditions at times, especially during the High Holy Days. We have had to reschedule a bar mitzvah because of limited space," Golbart said. "We have no specific time frame, but if I find the right piece of property and the right deal, we might be able to do something."      Golbart said his congregation has "a membership of about 180 families, and we average anywhere from 120 to 150 congregants at our Friday night services."

 

Adat Ami is one of the newest congregations in Las Vegas and may well typify the growing needs of the Jewish community since it is also one of the fastest growing congregations.