A svelte blonde in a nude cocktail dress walks to the bar.
“She’s converting,” comments Xania Woodman (yes, that Xania Woodman, who writes about all things nightlife for the Weekly). Woodman is explaining to me about JewEL, a local organization for young Jewish professionals to meet one another and get involved in the community. As the Leadership Chair, Woodman has been coordinating monthly JewEL Happy Hours for the past three years; the Happy Hours are, depending on who you talk to, a casual get-together, a chance to find romance and a business networking function.
The event is at Artisan, but past events have been held at low-key downtown locales like The Griffin and the Beauty Bar and upscale lounges like Lavo and Caramel. Along with specialty drinks, attendees (who pay a $10 donation at the door, which goes to charity) sample kosher appetizers, provided by the venue.
“I come here to be around Jews because there’s no where else I can get that on such a grand scale," explains Woodman. "So, whether I want to talk about Israel and be serious or about bagels and lox and be funny, I’m in good company. There’s an instant acceptance when you spend time with people from your own culture. Most of us live and work in diverse surroundings, which is great, but it’s also great to come back to a room full of Jews.”
Mingling among the leather couches and bookcases are trios, quartets and quintets of smiling, well-dressed and polished men and women, ages 21-45. Woodman says that an average of 75-90 JewEL members and new recruits attend every month.
“Over the years it’s turned into a very attractive crowd,” continues Woodman. “But these people are business people: doctors, lawyers, people who work in the casino/club industry, the financial industry, media, store owners, entrepreneurs, consultants – it’s definitely a smorgasbord.”
“It’s kind of like going to Cheers, it’s where you know people,” chimes in Michael King, who has been hovering nearby for quite some time.
Beneath the lighthearted chattering and flirting is a solid cultural foundation. JewEL is sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Las Vegas, a fundraising organization that is frequently involved in service and philanthropy. Members of JewEL are invited to participate in these service opportunities, which range from canned food drives to constructing and painting houses to visiting senior citizens.
This Sunday’s Mitzvah Day will involve a blood drive, canned food drive, bone marrow testing, painting a women’s shelter, visiting senior citizens, making care packages for the troops in Iran and Afghanistan and building a Habitat for Humanity house.
JewEL also encourages attendees to attend other social events like Kosher Poker as well as a Jewish Leadership class, called Springboard.
“Whatever Jewish is to you, the movement is to get more Jewish people doing Jewish,” Woodman explains.
While the event is primarily for Jews, anyone is welcome.
“People can be nondenominational, practicing orthodox or in between,” says Alex Hirschkind, JewEL Chair. “It’s about building a community, it’s about making friends and connections. Vegas is so transient, and this helps make it feel a little smaller and offers a piece of home.”
She says this to me and to the blonde I noticed earlier, who had spent the evening perched on a barstool with her legs crossed. A sweet 25-year-old, Nicole Gabrielle Bruno is a journalism student at UNLV as well as an aspiring actress.
“If you guys hadn’t been so welcoming, I don’t know where I’d be,” says Bruno to Hirschkind.
Bruno, who comes from a non-practicing Christian family, tells me she decided to convert to Judaism after having dreams for years about becoming Jewish.
“I dreamed about being Jewish, so for me, it’s a big deal. I’m literally following my dreams. I started having [the dreams] three years ago and one and a half years ago I began listening to my reoccurring dreams,” says Bruno.
Bruno studied the Torah and other Hebraic texts for a year and a half and will be tested by rabbis in a month and a half. If she passes, she will be a Jew (to convert to Orthodox Judaism, one must study for a full five years).
But Bruno already considers herself a member of the active, welcoming society.
“I go to temple every Friday, I have tons of Jewish friends; my life is pretty damn Jewish,” says Bruno enthusiastically. “I think the people are so warm and inviting. You always feel a tie or connection to being Jewish – wherever you go, you have that bond.”