HistoryThe first Jewish immigrants arrived in Native American Territory before the Land Rush. A synagogue was established in Ardmore, Oklahoma in the 1870s. In 1902, as Tulsa was forming, Eastern European Jews arrived overland from larger communities to the east. Many were originally from the small village of Varklan, Latvia. Descendents of those first immigrants are still members of B’nai Emunah. Oklahoma is distinct in the sense that Eastern Europeans (as opposed to German and other Western European Jews) founded its communities. The Synagogue was formally organized on November 6, 1915. Within a year, members built their first synagogue at Ninth and Cheyenne, on the outskirts of what is now the downtown area. In 1941, the congregation purchased the land at Seventeenth and Peoria where the Synagogue currently stands. At the time, the surrounding neighborhood had formal covenants in place barring the sale of homes to Jews or African Americans. Fortunately, such agreements have never hampered the Synagogue’s activities. Since the move to the new site, the buildings have continuously been remodeled and expanded. The current form of the Synagogue still contains the sanctuary built in 1959, but the outer areas were reconstructed in 2000.
LeadershipThe Synagogue has been headed by only seven Rabbis throughout its existence. A Board of Directors containing 20 members (including officers) is the highest deliberative body in the institution. Items rarely come to a formal vote. Rabbi Fitzerman describes the decision-making environment as "informal, consensual, and collegial."
DemographicsLike the rest of America’s Jewish population, B’nai Emunah tends to skew toward an older membership, but the congregation is younger than most, with many young parents and children who are quite active. In the community at large, the Synagogue has the reputation of being especially strong in programming for young families. There are also a substantial number of households where one partner is a member of another faith community or professes no specific religious faith. Parts of every service are conducted in Hebrew, but each Hebrew text is available in transliteration, a boon to those who are new to the Synagogue. A few members also speak Hebrew (mostly Israeli transplants), along with Yiddish and Farsi. The public language of teaching, instruction, and deliberation is English. An Eastern European ethnic heritage still colors decision-making, cultural and culinary preferences, and the informal style of the congregation.
DescriptionThe Synangogue is located on the edge of a residential neighborhood at Seventeenth and Peoria. It is a fairly large building for the neighborhood, with a north facing entrance. Two small copper domes sit atop the west end of the building. The Sanctuary and Chapel are both at the east end of the building and face east in the traditional pattern. The Library/Resource Center, Education Wing, Preschool, Meat and Dairy Kitchens, meeting rooms, and offices all encircle the Sanctuary and Chapel. Daily services are held in the Chapel. High Holiday celebrations and many life-cycle events usually occupy the Sanctuary due to increased attendance. Both the Chapel and the Sanctuary display the Torah behind curtains, with the ark itself behind a large Reader’s Desk. A ner tamid, or eternal light, hangs above each pulpit. In the Sanctuary, stained glass windows adorn each side of the pulpit, bearing emblems of the twelve tribes of Israel. Mezuzot containing texts drawn from the Torah mark every doorframe in the Synagogue. The original 1942 Sanctuary Ark has been preserved in the main foyer of the building, along with a Torah scroll recovered from the Holocaust. A stained glass window was also moved form the original synagogue, along with many other artifacts. All decorate a Hall of Remembrance containing plaques bearing the names of those recalled by the congregation.
Activities and ScheduleThe Synagogue offers services daily at 5:30 p.m. Sabbath services begin at 9:00 a.m. on Saturday morning and conclude at 11:00 a.m., with Sunset Services marking the close of the day. Friday Evening services are held twice a month, and are conducted in an inclusive, engaging style which makes imaginative use of musical instruments. One of these services is keyed to families with young children and the other is intended for teens and adults. Religious classes for children are offered on Sunday mornings from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. Hebrew school runs on Wednesday afternoons from 4:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m., with evening classes on Wednesdays for high school students. Board meetings are held once a month. The Synagogue also offers special seminars, High Holiday services, dinners, and events, all of which are described on the Synagogue’s website. A monthly newsletter called The Messenger is published, containing schedules, announcements, volunteer acknowledgments, articles by laypeople and Synagogue staff members, a column by Rabbi Fitzerman, and other information for the congregation. The Synagogue runs a highly-regarded preschool program that is NAEYC accredited. It is the only not-for-profit Jewish preschool in Tulsa, and has attracted a large and pluralistic community of parents and children from the congregation and the community at large.
OtherIn the last several years, B’nai Emunah has emerged as an open, egalitarian congregation, with strong ties to the interfaith community and communitarian commitments to the city at large. Women are fully integrated into the liturgical life of the institution, and share in its leadership. The congregation runs a vanguard program in community building in one of the poorest neighborhoods of the city, providing mentor volunteers to schoolchildren and brokering services and support for families. The congregation as a whole is open to innovation, experimentation, and new initiatives of all kinds, especially those that engage its non-traditional members. B’nai Emunah takes pride in a posture of openness and welcome, a stance that has endeared it to interfaith households, and opened up Jewish text study to adult learners without prior experience. Lay leaders and Synagogue professionals are closely aligned, and institutional relationships are marked by a high degree of mutual deference and trust.
Date Center Founded
November 6, 1915
Member families are mostly Eastern European in heritage, with a small cluster of Sepharadim, and a growing number of newcomers to Judaism.
Affiliation with Other Communities/Organizations
United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. The Synagogue is also part of a family of local congregations and organizations.