Yiddishkeit In Vegas?


by S. Olidort - SUMMERLIN, NV

February 10, 2003

Unfolding along the western rim of the Las Vegas Valley, Summerlin is a new, 22,500-acre master-planned community, with a quality-of-life to match its azure skies, and the majestic Spring Mountain Range and Red Rock Canyon Conservation hugging its perimeter.

"Eleven years ago I told Rabbi Harlig we'd need a Chabad center in Summerlin," recalls Terry Knight, among the first of Summerlin’s residents. Harlig, Chabad's first representative to Las Vegas, was doubtful about such a development so soon after his own arrival and said so. But Terry wasn’t easily dissuaded. "'It will happen,' I told the Rabbi.”

A native of Florida, Terry moved to Las Vegas just as Chabad was setting up base here, and was witness to the birth pangs of traditional Judaism in a city that glitters with gold. When her vision of Chabad in Summerlin was realized with the arrival of Rabbi Yisroel and Shterna Schanowitz a few years later, Terry rolled up her sleeves quickly becoming an active, devoted participant in the work of Chabad in Summerlin. And as new families settled in Summerlin, says Terry, “each became a ‘shliach,’” an emissary, helping to bring Jewish awareness to their friends and their neighbors.

Home to some 25,000 Jews, Summerlin is now the fastest growing Jewish community in Las Vegas, and by extension nationwide, and the Schanowitzs are matching that growth spurt with an expansion of their own. After eight years of services, classes, and functions in a rented storefront, the community is abuzz with excitement, anticipating the completion of a permanent community center for Jewish life. A 12,000 square foot building, the new Chabad House will include two sanctuaries, a large social hall, classrooms, a comprehensive Jewish library, and a Mikvah sponsored by the Knight family.

The idea took shape nearly two years ago, says Rabbi Schanowitz, and during their first fundraiser for the project, the community pulled together $300,000.00, which they put towards the purchase of a lot of land in a terrific location. Part of a shopping mall complex, the lot has the benefits of a commercial spot in a residential area, easily accessible to the community, without the strict zoning laws that pertain to the residential blocks, and sits on the border that divides Summerlin and its affluent neighbor, Desert Shores.

In addition to its wide array of programs including a Hebrew School that meets twice weekly, Mommy and Me sessions, adult education classes, and a monthly women’s get-together, Chabad is also addressing the needs of residents of Sun City, a nearby retirement community with a Jewish population of 4,000. The Schanowitzs have made a habit of visiting Sun City around the Jewish holidays with educational programs and lively functions that go a long way to inform and inspire. They also offer Yiddish lessons to retirees nostalgic for the “mama loshon” of yesteryear.

When Herb Jaffee left New Jersey with his wife Fran, for a retirement life in Sun City, they would fly to Los Angeles every now and then to stock up on kosher goods. But in the few years since they’ve come, the Jaffees have seen Las Vegas, and Summerlin itself, utterly transformed. Today, says Herb, “I can’t think of anything I can’t buy here.”

Inspired by the dramatic change in a city that only several years ago was very much a desert, physically and spiritually, Terry—now Feige— describes herself as someone who “lives, breathes, and works for Chabad.” Her children, she says, are perfect indication of all that Chabad has achieved in its short time here. Yirmi, her oldest, is now halfway around the globe, studying in a Chabad yeshiva down under to receive his rabbinical ordination, and another is preparing for a similar course as her two younger boys study at Chabad’s Desert Torah Academy, the only Jewish day school in Las Vegas.

It is an ironic turn of events that would lead Terry to leave Florida for Vegas to find Judaism. But in a deeply Jewish faith that informs her perspective, Terry says it is anything but coincidental.

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