Vegas Voices is a weekly series highlighting notable Southern Nevadans.
Rabbi Sanford Akselrad never really harbored a burning desire to become a Las Vegan.
But life can be funny and Akselrad this year is celebrating his 30th year ministering not only to members of Congregation Ner Tamid — Nevada’s largest Reform synagogue — but more indirectly, to countless Southern Nevadans who have benefited from the community service programs he has helped establish.
Still, it was hardly a given that Akselrad would become a rabbi, even if his father was a prominent Bay Area rabbi for decades. But, he says, “by ninth grade, I realized that was my calling.”
In June 1984, he was ordained from Cincinnati’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and took a position as an associate rabbi in Columbus, Ohio.
“After a few years, it came time for me to leave my work there and make my way West to be close to family,” says Akselrad, who’s originally from Palo Alto, California, and whose wife, Joni, is from Reno.
Even though an interview at Congregation Ner Tamid beckoned, “I said, ‘I’m not going to Las Vegas. That’s Sin City,’ ” Akselrad says. His wife reminded him that she grew up in Reno and all was well. “I said, ‘I guess you’re right,” so she prevailed on me to do the interview.”
Akselrad interviewed at Congregation Ner Tamid in Henderson in September 1987, about a week shy of his 30th birthday. “I came out on Thursday and by Sunday we had marked out a deal,” he says. “And on Feb. 1, (we) had moved from the winter of Ohio to the desert.”
Akselrad turns 61 in October. He and Joni have two children, CJ and Sam, a daughter-in-law, Ana, and a granddaughter, Genevieve.
Review-Journal: What did you see here that allowed you to move beyond that “Sin City” notion?
Akselrad: When I came here, of course they showed me the Strip, but, in reality, I realized that it was just a Jewish community that wanted to bring up their kids and raise them in the Jewish tradition and wanted a rabbi to lead them. (Ner Tamid) was a very small congregation of 60 families (now more than 600). At the time, there were three congregations, now there are almost 30 in Las Vegas. There were about 20,000 Jewish families, and now there are about 80,000 and I felt there was a lot of potential here.
What are some big changes you’ve seen over the past 30 years?
There are a few things that happened in Las Vegas that are unique and there are some that mirror what’s going on in Judaism in general. We are a very transient community, which I think is unique … There’s also a tendency for us to be a community where people come to retire and they’ve done their Jewish duty in other communities where they were heads of synagogues or sisterhoods or men’s clubs or members of the board. And they came here, retired and don’t want to get involved — been there, done that, that was a prior life.
You’ve been involved in many community service and interfaith activities here. Do any in particular stick out?
One of the things I’m proudest of was an “a-ha!’ moment I had during the recession when somebody came to me looking for help to find a job. Honestly, people have asked me for help to find work over the years, and I never was very successful, and I felt bad telling this person I couldn’t help them. … I started Project Ezra. It created a vocational service program that partnered with owners of Jewish businesses and other people involved in the Jewish community who were aware of jobs. … We’ve placed over 600 people over the years who have found good-paying jobs.
Many denominations have difficulty attracting young people. Is that an issue for Southern Nevada’s Jewish community?
Everyone is facing the same issue, where people today like to, if you will, create their own religious tradition, borrowing what they remember as children, picking up some things from reading, mostly, and they will say, “I am spiritual, but not religious. I like to go hiking, I like to meditate, I like to read, but I don’t really have the need to go to a church or synagogue.” That’s very different than when I began my career. I think the next generation of rabbinical leaders are going to have to be dynamic and creative in order to respond to this generation. (Laughs) I often tell them, “If you’re not into organized religion, you should join me. I’m very disorganized.”
Any thought of retiring?
I intend to serve the congregation for a long time. I’m not looking toward retirement, but the 60s do give one time to pause, to not only reinvent but define new challenges and also new personal experiences. My wife has been on me for 28 years to get a hobby. … A few years ago, I began to ride a bike, and, believe it or not, it’s allowed me to connect with some of the younger members of my congregation. (Laughs) My dad had a program called “Walk and Talk with the Rabbi.” Mine is “Bike and Ride with the Rabbi.”
Getting to know: Rabbi Sanford Akselrad
Bike riding, tennis and photography.
Place to take out-of-town visitors
We take them to the Las Vegas Strip, of course, but for those who are into the outdoors, we always take them to Red Rock.
Lemon meringue pie or anything chocolate.
Favorite type of music
I always listen to more of the mellow music, the likes of James Taylor and Jim Croce. Easy listening for the most part. I also listen to a lot of Jewish music. I’ve recently become enamored with a Jewish bluegrass group, Nefesh Mountain.
Just saying prayers, probably. And reading the newspaper, then praying again (laughs).
Favorite vacation destination
New York City. We go a couple of times a year.
Favorite sports team
I never really had time to be a big sports fan, but I did become enamored with the Golden Knights. Now I’m a big Golden Knights fan. And I’m from the Bay Area — I was born in Oakland — so I think I’ll be a Raiders fan.
What are you reading right now?
Bob Woodward’s book (“Fear: Trump in the White House”)
Sometimes I will see movies for reflection and meaning, like “Schindler’s List.” But, for the most part, I watch movies for escapism, so it will be an action-style movie so I don’t have to think about anything.
What don’t people know about you?
I am a big “Star Trek” fan. I have in my office a little tribute to “Star Trek.” Of course, the original series, (William) Shatner and (Leonard) Nimoy were Jewish and a lot of the values of “Star Trek” were really Jewish values. The Vulcan hand salute is Jewish. It’s the priestly benediction. That’s where Leonard Nimoy got that from.
I never leave the house without …
I’m not big on heights.
What alternate profession might you have pursued?
I’d probably become an attorney. Or now that I know more about myself, I probably would become a psychologist or psychiatrist.