Sin City Scene

Kosher poké and poker amid dealmaking at ICSC real estate conference in Vegas

Inside the Jewish scene at the world’s largest retail real estate convention, kicking off this weekend

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Las Vegas

With more than 22,000 people expected to attend this weekend’s ICSC confab in Las Vegas, the event is a mainstay on the conference circuit — and one of the largest to relaunch, in splashy Sin City fashion, after the pandemic. This year, all the networking and hobnobbing is set against the backdrop of great uncertainty for commercial real estate and retail.

The annual real estate gathering organized by the International Council of Shopping Centers offers some of everything, from dealmaking to dance parties, for the industry leaders who convene in 100-degree temperatures in the desert. (Poolside private cabanas are known to be hubs for schmoozing.)

The conference, which is the largest retail real estate convention in the world, turns Vegas — briefly — into a hub for the Jewish community. Kosher food is available through the three days of the festival, which runs from Sunday to Tuesday. Multiple hotels offer morning minyans for the Shacharit prayer service, and they don’t need to worry about hitting the 10-person prayer quorum; more than enough people show up. 

“We do believe that the lower the place is spiritually, the higher the potential,” said Rabbi Levi Harlig, a born-and-bred Las Vegan and Chabad emissary who is running Shabbat programming at the conference. “There’s no lower place in Las Vegas than the Strip, so to be able to transform that, to have a Torah reading and keep Shabbos properly is pretty powerful.” 

Chabad of Southern Nevada will have an outpost at the Wynn on the Strip from Friday through Tuesday, with about 50 people expected for Shabbat meals. Harlig and his twin brother, also a Chabad rabbi, will offer prayer services throughout Shabbat, along with three-times-a-day weekday prayers during the rest of the conference. (The Wynn works with Harlig on helping guests observe Shabbat; the nearby Venetian Hotel has Shabbat rooms.)

“People can gather together, do a little Torah study, keep them connected while they’re still here. Daven with a minyan and whatnot,” Harlig said. “It’s difficult to get away and go to a shul that’s a 15-minute drive. So it’s very convenient for them.”

Chabad’s daily minyans are sponsored by Meridian Capital Group, whose founder and CEO, Ralph Herzka, is a major donor to religious institutions in the U.S. and Israel. Each year at ICSC, Meridian Capital sponsors a high-end kosher lunch in a custom event space designed by a New York event management company. Last year’s offerings included a salad bar, a poké station and a smoothie bar. 

After a day spent wandering the booths and exhibitions at the Las Vegas Convention Center, attendees angle to land invites to exclusive cocktail parties and dinners hosted by major firms. Kosher food is surprisingly easy to come by, and not just a shrink-wrapped Glatt kosher meal. 

Jeff Wild, a partner at the Cleveland-based law firm Benesch, has been going to ICSC for more than 20 years. At Benesch’s Monday night party at the Bellagio, the firm will order extra kosher food, and Wild plans to extend an invite to anyone he meets who’s looking for kosher food.

“We tell people, if you happen to know other people who are kosher, even if they don’t do business with the firm, we want to make sure that we’re welcoming, and we invite as many people as possible to come in to enjoy the kosher food,” Wild told Jewish Insider. “In this situation, people get a chance to actually relax and enjoy the food of their choice without having to make difficult decisions about being able to eat or not.”

People who keep kosher haven’t always been able to find high-quality food at the convention center. Marc Tropp, senior managing director at the commercial real estate firm Eastern Union, said the kosher scene used to be mainly pizza deliveries.

Now, “the frum-owned companies both days will have a lunch, like a catered lunch, fully kosher,” said Tropp, who has been going to ICSC since 2005. “It’s really open to anybody, and it’s really amazing. It’s truly unbelievable.” 

The benefit isn’t just the food, of course. “It’s helpful because it’s sort of like a networking event within a networking event,” he said. “You’re talking specifically to people that you’re spending 30-45 minutes with, eating a meal.”

Tropp is based in Bethesda, Md., and his firm sponsors the kosher food at the annual Maryland party, an invite-only event at the Wynn where state officials including Gov. Larry Hogan will mingle with developers and retailers who might be thinking of making investments in Maryland. 

In 2018, many of ICSC’s biggest dealmakers skipped the conference when it coincided with Shavuot. Others who are not observant Jews reflected that their absence would be obvious: “If you know the popular kids are not going to the party, then you are not going to go,” Jonathan Adelsberg, a partner at the New York law firm Herrick Feinstein, told real estate site The Real Deal at the time. 

In the past, Jewish and Israel-focused organizations like the federation and AIPAC have tried to set up events parallel to the conference, one longtime ICSC attendee and philanthropist told JI. But people come to the conference to make deals, so the events were not especially successful. 

“After a long day of walking the convention center and having meeting after meeting after meeting, you’re quite tired at the dinner,” Wild said. “A lot of us don’t really take advantage of it being in Vegas. Vegas just happens to be an easy place for them to have this convention every single year.”

Not everyone agrees: Tropp plans to take clients to live performances, maybe a magic show or a comedy show. And he’ll hit the casino a bit, even though “I’m not a huge gambler,” he said. But he’s most looking forward to being face-to-face with colleagues and clients. “It’s good to see that the industry is still surviving. I will say, outside of hospitality, I think when COVID hit the retail sector, I think everyone thought it was going to get destroyed,” said Tropp. 

For Simon Ziff, president of Ackman-Ziff Real Estate Group, a real estate capital advisory firm, the most exciting part will be “my three dinners, unfortunately non-kosher restaurants, with 20-plus year relationships from all over the country,” he told JI. “I’ll admit that I will enjoy some great DJs as well.”