Rabbis Eli Davidowitz, left, and Dani Locker at the Kollel Books and Judaica center. Jews have a rich history in Las Vegas.
LAS VEGAS — When Nevada held its first Republican caucuses in 2008, Philip A. Kantor walked to the library next door to his synagogue. He took in the spectacle, watching others ballot for their chosen candidate. But he could not take part — as an Orthodox Jew, he was forbidden from writing on the Sabbath.
Frustrated, he promised himself to prevent a similar setup in the next election. But by the time state party officials announced the date of this year’s caucuses, Mr. Kantor realized that he would be barred again, unless they made special provisions.
Mr. Kantor placed several calls to friends and colleagues he knew were influential in G.O.P. circles, including to his longtime friend Sheldon Adelson, a Jewish philanthropist and Republican donor. Within weeks, Mr. Kantor had a meeting with the Clark County party chairman. After considerable back and forth, Mr. Kantor was assured that he and other Orthodox Jews would be welcome during a special caucus Saturday night, hours after others would end.
Even by the most generous estimate, Jews make up just 3 percent of the population in Nevada. But they have a long history in Las Vegas — many of the pioneer developers were Jews, as are both the current and former mayor — and the number of Orthodox Jews has grown steadily over the last two decades.
Suddenly, those Orthodox Jews have been thrust into the spotlight, and come Saturday night all eyes will be on the special caucus that is expected to draw, at most, a few hundred Sabbath observers. Rabbis in several congregations are urging their Republican congregants to show up, lest the public dismiss the caucus as a needless accommodation.
“It’s an important moment and milestone for us,” said Rabbi Eliyahu Davidowitz, who moved here with his family from Queens three years ago to help set up a full-time adult religious school known as a kollel.
In New York, with a considerable Orthodox population, it would strike many politicians as inconceivable to even propose holding a major vote on a Saturday, Rabbi Davidowitz said, but here, it was hardly surprising that Republican leaders had not considered the Sabbath.
“We’re small in number, that’s just the fact,” he said, “but we are getting bigger and people notice us.”
Indeed, there are signs of a growing population everywhere — kosher restaurants dot the landscape from just off the Strip to the suburbs. Three new Jewish schools, including one named for Mr. Adelson with a sprawling, luxurious campus, have opened in the past several years. The Venetian Hotel, owned by Mr. Adelson, keeps a set of kosher dishes for special events.
And last year, a group of friends from one of the seven Orthodox synagogues in town formed a Jewish cigar and gun club (the group has yet to have an official outing to the shooting range).
“You get a different kind of person moving here,” said David Kruger, 70, who moved from West Bloomfield, Mich., nearly seven years ago and boasted that his hometown was the only other place with a Jewish gun club. “We have an independent streak, and we don’t want to be told what to do.”
When word spread last week of the special caucus, some were outraged that it would be held at the school named for Mr. Adelson, who has spent millions of dollars supporting Newt Gingrich’s presidential bid. But most of the Orthodox Jews who were interviewed here said they planned to support Mitt Romney because they believed he had a better chance of defeating President Obama.
For the most part, Mr. Kruger and others say, Orthodox Jews here are eager to elect a Republican president. Even if their numbers are small, many see themselves as potentially an important voting bloc in a swing state.
Some criticize Mr. Obama as insufficiently supportive of Israel, but they are even more critical of his efforts to improve the American economy. “We get people who are pioneers here, they don’t need anybody to coddle them — that means both religiously and politically,” Mr. Kantor said. “People who move to a place like this come here because they know they can make it on their own.”
Orthodox Jews have moved to Las Vegas for one of the same reasons as so many others: cheap housing. While a three-bedroom house in many Jewish neighborhoods in larger cities can easily cost about $500,000, a larger home here could easily be found for less than half that — even before the housing market crashed.
There are no official counts, but most estimates put the number of Orthodox families at 300, a small fraction of the 70,000 Jews in the city. The new arrivals have slowed since the economic downturn. But still, more families come, figuring they will need less money for expenses.
Rabbi Shea Harlig moved to Las Vegas from Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in 1990 to open up a Chabad Lubavitch outreach center; at the time, he and his wife were among the first Orthodox Jews in town. Although Chabad emissaries were being sent all over the country, the leader of the group, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, had been reluctant to send a permanent representative to a place not known for holiness.
Even as Rabbi Harlig embraced the task, he opted to name his center Chabad of Southern Nevada, avoiding the Vegas name. (His motto, he likes to say, is “Taking the sin out of Sin City.”)
Since living here, Rabbi Harlig has fought many religious battles, among them, ensuring that students in public schools could take off for Jewish holidays and that there is kosher food available in the state prisons.
But although he is an active Republican, he was not prepared to fight to change the caucus date to accommodate the Sabbath.
“I figure I have to choose my battles, and this wasn’t something that was going to hurt my religious freedom,” he said. But he was delighted once he heard the party had created a special caucus. He asked a congregant throwing a party at the synagogue Saturday night to push back the start time to 9 p.m., so that people would have time for a civic calling first.
As soon as the sun sets and evening prayers end, he said, he will rush from the synagogue to pick up his wife to drive across town to caucus.