Small Town Synagogue: Oklahoma's Jewish Beginnings

I’ll admit that part of the shtick of my blog is that I talk about Hebrew concepts and living by the Torah in a predominantly non-Jewish place, but there once was a time when Oklahoma had several thriving Jewish communities. Any T-Town resident can see the evidence of Tulsa’s once-burgeoning Jewish beginnings in the names of buildings and foundations all over the city; from OU-Tulsa’s Schusterman Center at 41st  and Yale to the Sherwin Miller Museum of Jewish Art off 71st Street. Though there remains a Reform Jewish temple, a Conservative synagogue, and an Orthodox shul in Tulsa along with various Jewish congregations around the Oklahoma City area, most would be surprised to hear about some of Oklahoma’s first Jewish communities. 

While many Jewish populations are attracted to larger cities (like New York City; which is rumored to have more Jews per square foot than Jerusalem), Oklahoma didn’t have too many larger cities until a little later on in the game. If you were to ask the average person where the first Jewish congregation started, most would tell you Tulsa or Oklahoma City, but the answer surprised me once I found out. 

Organized when Oklahoma wasn’t even yet a state (still Indian territory), the small Jewish community of Ardmore, Oklahoma organized the first Jewish congregation called Temple Emeth (Hebrew for “truth”); though it would be a while before they’d have a building of their own. The records are somewhat unclear about their original buildings, but the synagogue closed its doors for good in 2004. Because of the immense cost of tearing the building down due to its asbestos construction, it still stands in Ardmore as a memorial to small-town Oklahoma Hebrew folks. I’ve heard that the building is for sale if anyone is interested in restarting a Jewish community in Ardmore, OK (current population of about 24,000).

Temple Emeth Jewish Synagogue Ardmore Oklahoma
Photo credit: http://www.oklahomahistory.net

Temple Emeth Jewish Synagogue Ardmore Oklahoma
Photo credit: http://www.oklahomahistory.net
Temple Emeth Jewish Synagogue Ardmore Oklahoma
Photo credit: http://www.oklahomahistory.net


While Oklahoma’s current Jewish population is only about .1%, there was a time when many thousand Israelites proudly called Oklahoma home. Though only around a thousand Jews lived in Oklahoma around the time it became a state in 1907, that number exploded to about 7,500 in the 1920s. 

Believe it or not, many small towns in Oklahoma at one time had Jewish populations. Enid was home to Congregation Emanuel. Chickasha’s Jewish population met at B’nai Abraham. Services were conducted in Hebrew in the small town of Hartshorne at B’nai Israel; which had been in existence since 1916. Though these congregations have long since dissolved due to a number of factors, little specks of Jewish activity still exists throughout rural Oklahoma. Most have no idea of their existence, but Temple Bethahaba in Muskogee, Temple Emanuel in Ponca City, and the Seminole Hebrew Center in Seminole, OK are still home to small-town Torah study. 

What is the reason for the decline in Israelite life amongst the Chosen People or lack of community? Could it be intermarriage, bombardment by Christianity, a lack of a Jewish infrastructure of kosher eateries and neighborhoods? The answer is anyone’s guess, but even with Oklahoma being the belt buckle of the Bible belt with places like Oral Roberts University and RHEMA Bible College, the remaining population of Okies of the Hebrew variety have remained dedicated to the Torah and their roots. 

They say it’s easy to be Torah-observant in places like Chicago, Dallas, New York City, Los Angeles, or Jerusalem. Oklahoma just makes you work for it. 

Shalom. 

P.S. 
Though Temple Emeth was Oklahoma’s first Jewish community, it was not Oklahoma’s first synagogue. That honor belonged to the building of Temple Israel in Tulsa, OK. The building was nestled in a neighborhood about a mile from my home in Midtown Tulsa. Built in 1914, Temple Israel’s congregants from the surrounding neighborhood met there for services before they moved to another location a few neighborhoods over in 1955. 

Temple Israel Reform Jewish Synagogue Tulsa Oklahoma

Sadly, just days after it was announced that the old then-abandoned synagogue was to be restored, it was consumed by a fire. Though the cause of the fire was unknown, many blamed faulty wiring which caused an electrical fire. Not being far from my home, I remembered seeing one of Tulsa’s most beloved historical landmarks burn to the ground with my own eyes. 

Temple Israel Reform Jewish Synagogue Tulsa Oklahoma on fire

9 thoughts on “Small Town Synagogue: Oklahoma's Jewish Beginnings

  1. Wonderful blog and post.Thank You.I had attended a lecture in OKC many years ago and thought I remembered that the first Orthodox synagogue was in Muskogee.Have never been able to find it.Any thoughts?

  2. Ran across this blog while searching on “Emeth Congregation Temple, Ardmore, OK”. My grandfather, Wiley G Clarkson, was an highly respected architect in Fort Worth from 1912 to 1952. I have been photographing the still standing projects he designed. In his records, he records the above name and location with the job storage location and number as “Box 4 Job 489” and apparently is the architect for the Emeth Congregation Building. If anyone can supply me with some basic historical info such as the construction date, etc, I would appreciate it. I will probably make a trip to Ardmore to photograph the building and several houses he designed (if I can locate them by the original owners names).

    1. i BELIEVE YOU ARE SPEAKING OF ludwig (Lucky) Isenberg. Who designed most of Ardmore in the 50’s thru the 90’s look at the high school… his homes all have a very distinct jetson look to them and are easy to spot. look for the “Lake Jean Neustadt??” Sign on the west side of I-35 in front of the lake…Yup he did that also. and built the temple in Ardmore in the early 50’s the last service there was for his funeral back in 04, His wife Is also gone as is the son Mitch, But Ellen the daughter is alive and well in ames Iowa. if you do go there be sure to check out the original Jewish cemetery with graves dating back to the 1800;s Also there is a bust of Lucky on Main street in ardmore, as well as many items he designed and crafted at the historical museum in ardmore, and Yes I was part of that family as well.

  3. Very cool! I wish I had more information, but I really only know what I dug up on the internet. Apparently the only reason the synagogue hasn’t been demolished and had something else built there is because of the amount of asbestos in the walls that would be released if destroyed. I’d like to see someone buy it and use it for something – heck, if they trust asbestos-filled buildings for military use, they should allow them for the public.

  4. The Goddard Center for the Performing Arts, whose main building is around the corner on 1st Ave SW is going to remodel the former temple for its use. I’m glad as it’s a great example of a mid-century building. The reason for the population decline: intermarriage, decline of the oil industry’s influence in the area, and the arrival of big box retailing which closed many local businesses (including Daube’s department store), and younger people moving out of the area to larger cities.

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