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