Jewish Life in the Bible Belt
Religious Diversity at The University of Tulsa
Scholastically speaking, Tulsa, Oklahoma is best known as the home of Oral Roberts University, where this year was the first that women were allowed to wear pants to class, and where visitors can follow an avenue to visit a 60-foot tall Praying Hands statue, the city’s best known landmark.
But a drive across town from the Christian school reveals a different side of the city. The University of Tulsa is more than Oral Roberts’ sports rival; it is also its ideological foil. During the last three years, the private school has become something of a haven for Jewish students. A brand new Hillel House and a Jewish Studies certificate program are among the most apparent signs of the changing times, but Judaism isn’t the only religion faring well at TU. A brisk walk through campus reveals the plethora of Christian denominations that coexist alongside a mosque, built in 2004, and Hillel House, dedicated in 2005. Hillel and the Muslim Student Association recently teamed up to introduce a Hallal/Kosher option at every meal.
“TU is lucky to have such a diverse faith-based population that is so active on and around campus,” opines theater major Jordan Herskowitz.
Hillel’s 2005-2006 advisor, Dr. Joli Jensen, agrees. “My sense is that Tulsa has an admirable interfaith history, possibly because of the interesting combination of Christian, Jewish and Muslim faith communities. I also suspect that Jewish community bonds have been strengthened because there is motivation to build community infrastructure for mutual support.”
Though the university has adopted a liberal view of community diversity, the city of Tulsa is not quite there. The second largest city in Oklahoma is called “the buckle of the Bible Belt” for a reason, and students from the East Coast have been known to experience something of a culture shock upon arrival.
“Being in the ‘buckle’…can be awkward at times,” says Josh Buck, who has returned to his alma mater this fall for graduate studies. "However, you are able to find many people interested in Judaism and are willing to be your friend because you are a good person, not because you are Jewish.”
More than one Hillel member relates anecdotes about introducing themselves to Tulsa residents and getting a response along the lines of, “That is so interesting. I’ve never met a Jew before.”
The students came to Tulsa similarly unexposed, and were often warned by friends and family on the coasts that evangelical Christians were akin to modern-day bogeymen.
TU’s administration has pushed hard to create an identity for the school that disputes the bogeymen assumption of “Bible belt” Oklahoma.
“TU and ORU together with the other institutions of higher education in Tulsa merely add richness to the variety of educational offerings available in the city which is ultimately beneficial to everyone in the city and the region,” says Richard Sorochty, Vice President of Enrollment and Student Services.
Though historically most of TU’s Jewish students hailed from Tulsa, the times are changing. Many were sons and daughters of faculty members taking advantage of tuition breaks. The size and activity of the Jewish Student Association has fluctuated for over twenty years, and until recently, relied on law and graduate students for momentum rather than undergraduates.
Many are surprised to learn that the city of Tulsa actually features a vibrant Jewish community. There is a Conservative synagogue, a Reform temple, and a community center, which have been heavily funded by the remainder of the oil money that was Tulsa’s early claim to fame. The names Schusterman and Zarrow adorn a good many buildings, as if watching over to ensure that their hometown is taken care of.
Though TU’s growing Jewish population benefits from that of Tulsa, it is fueled from within. The current incarnation of Jewish life on campus began just before Passover, 2004, when several out-of-state students decided to organize a seder. The make-up of the student committee sounded like an old joke: what happens when a Messianic Jew, a non-practicing Jew, and this writer, herself waffling between teaching positions with Hebrew schools of different denominations come together to host a seder? A residence-hall-sponsored seder complete with an orange on the seder plate and topped off with an award for diversity programming.
After the afikomen was found, Jewish life on campus snowballed. Hillel started planning more events, drawing more students, and the admissions office kicked into high gear, and soon had a Jewish student recruitment plan, which was part of a wider effort to recruit students from the east and west coasts.
This year, TU reported that 50 out of 4,000 undergraduate students are Jewish, though ascertaining a figure is an imperfect process, as many choose not to list their religion.
Herskowitz, the theater major, was one of the first students to attend TU as a result of the targeted recruitment, and has since been active in a number of inter-faith events, and believes they will be central for Hillel in the future.
“Hillel provides Jewish students at TU a place and environment to be Jewish,” he said. “It allows us to connect with fellow Jews on campus and within the city and work with other faith-based organizations in learning and appreciating our different religions and beliefs.”
Vice President Sorochty agrees. “There are many clichés that refer to the increasing interconnectedness of people of different cultures, religions, and ethnic backgrounds all over the world,” he said. “As a university, we have an obligation to prepare young adults to be effective citizens in such a world.”
Thursday Bram is a senior Communications major at the University of Tulsa in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She is originally from Colorado Springs, Colorado.