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This group wants to make Tulsa a hub for young Jews

Tulsa, long a center for Jewish philanthropy, is now hoping to be a center of Jewish life.

Heather Wilk’s grandmother was born in Tulsa in 1895, before Oklahoma became a state, and her great grandparents were among the first Jews in the territory. But despite these ties, Wilk knew while growing up in the city that, in order to pursue a career in media and entertainment, she would have to leave for somewhere with more possibilities.

“With creative fields, anything outside the box felt impractical, if not impossible” in Tulsa, she told eJewishPhilanthropy. She moved to Los Angeles to become a producer and now serves as director of development at Red Entertainment, living in Park City, Utah. She is not alone: other Tulsan-raised writers who left their hometown for Hollywood include Cindy Chupack, who wrote for “Sex & the City and “Otherhood,” and Micah Fitzerman-Blue, whose credits include “Transparent” and “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.”

When Wilk returned to Tulsa last May — for the first time in a decade — joining a Jewish community initiative called Tulsa Tomorrow for a day of touring, the Tulsa she saw wasn’t the Tulsa she remembered. The city was newly developed, with growing technology and creative sectors, a built-out arts district and a 100-acre community park called Gathering Place.

“I thought I had to leave to build something,” Wilk told eJP. “I don’t know if that’s the case anymore.”

Wilk hasn’t made immediate plans to move back, but since Tulsa Tomorrow was founded in 2020, it has helped convince more than 50 people — men and women, couples, families and what its executive director, Rebekah Kantor, 31, calls “singular relocators” — to move to the community, with a retention rate higher than 85%.

Bigger cities like Los Angeles, Chicago and New York get a lot of attention because they have “really strong identities… people, to some capacity, know what they’re getting and what to expect,” Kantor said, whereas regarding Tulsa, she added, “People need to actually come and see it’s actually a real place, people live there. It has a thriving community. There are Jews that live in Tulsa. We actually pride ourselves on being the ones to open that door for people and consider a city that they likely never would have, if not for us.”

According to the Jewish Federation of Tulsa, the city has approximately 2,000 Jews, including about 200 young adults. 

In 2022, Kantor said, Tulsa Tomorrow has facilitated or influenced the relocation of 20 people: one individual, six couples and two families with preschool children. The adults among these “new Tulsans” range in age from 20 to their early 40s and originally hail from across the country, including from many states — like Florida, Arizona, Michigan and New York — with much larger Jewish communities. 

Several work in the nonprofit sector and education, and some are working remotely. Another local nonsectarian organization, Tulsa Remote, has been successful in recruiting remote workers and digital nomads to the city by providing $10,000 grants. 

Tulsa Tomorrow’s itineraries include sightseeing tours, as well as  networking events with city leaders, developers and people whose careers relate to the participants’ professional interests. The goal is to help prospective residents imagine their career path, and “put Tulsa on the map for young Jewish adults,” Kantor said. This includes showing them that the Jewish community is lively and welcoming.

“There is something really special about being in a small but mighty Jewish community where people really want to be genuine and helpful and make you feel like you’re a part of something,” Kantor said. “I think it’s an overall spirit that people feel when they’re in Tulsa. We introduce our visitors to city leaders, other young Jewish adults and Jewish community members. Our visitors get the chance to meet our clergy and have the chance to maintain relationships with everyone they meet.” 

Kantor sees the community’s small numbers as a draw, not a detriment.

“I always thought it would be easier to be Jewish when living in a bigger city with more Jews, however I faced challenges finding my niche, or finding the right community for me,” she said. “I often felt alone and like I was fending for myself, whereas in Tulsa, we are a very welcoming community [that] embraces new Jews. It’s rare to not have someone welcome you to Shabbat dinner or invite you to an event.” 

It doesn’t hurt Kantor’s case that Tulsa’s cost of living is 13-14% below the national average, according to NerdWallet, a company that helps people make financial decisions. The  difference between Tulsa and bigger metropolitan communities with larger Jewish populations is stark. In Brooklyn, the median two-bedroom apartment rental can cost around $3,500 a month, but a similarly-sized unit in Tulsa generally costs about $675.  And if a young family is looking to buy a house with room for children, a three-bedroom, two-bathroom home has a median cost of $231,827, versus the approximate Brooklyn sticker price of $1.3 million.

“We love that we’re somewhat of a city that’s on the rise, but still under the radar, which makes it really approachable to young people,” said Kantor. “If you are someone that wants to be able to own a home, and essentially feel like that you can create life savings for yourself without feeling like you’re living paycheck to paycheck, this is a really great place to do that.”

Members of Tulsa Tomorrow's Spring 2022 cohort visit the Sherwin Miller Museum of Jewish Art.

Members of Tulsa Tomorrow’s Spring 2022 cohort visit the Sherwin Miller Museum of Jewish Art.

Much of the city’s economy has revolved around the oil industry. According to the Oklahoma Historical Society, an oil strike at Glen Pool in 1905 — at the time the world’s largest — transformed the city. By 1909, the Tulsa city directory listed more than 126 oil companies. When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, Tulsa had a population of 7,298. By 1920, the population boomed to 72,000 and the city had earned the title “Oil Capital of the World.” 

The oil industry has also created a significant amount of concentrated wealth. Tulsa is home to large foundations named for Jewish businessmen whose wealth came from oil and gas, like the George Kaiser Family Foundation (GKFF) and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies.

The Schusterman Family Philanthropies, which is based in Tulsa, is known for its support of Jewish causes nationally and globally, but also supports projects locally — including creating the Jewish studies department at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, and funding the Charles Schusterman Jewish Community Center in Tulsa. 

The GKFF focuses on providing self-fulfillment for children, and is a supporting organization of the Tulsa Community Foundation as well as Tulsa Remote. Much of the city’s downtown development, including Gathering Place, was funded by GKFF, with an eye toward attracting young people and talent to grow the city. GKFF also bought the archives of a Jewish native son of the Midwest, Bob Dylan, and made the collection the centerpiece of the Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa, which opened in May.

Michael Basch, a Los Angeles native who works in finance and lived in London and New York before relocating to Tulsa about five years ago, called the small community “tight-knit… where everyone knows and checks in on each other.”

“You’re not one of many, you’re one of a few, and people are invested in each other’s lives,” Basch said. “I think it’s very unique to Tulsa. I felt that the Jewish elders of the community — people in their 50s, 60s and 70s — have really gone out of their way to look after the younger, newer generation; they go out of the way to recruit Jews here and engage them all here, make sure they’re happy and have friends, and when you’re sick, people bring you food.”  

Basch first heard about Tulsa on a Reality trip, a Schusterman-sponsored initiative bringing leaders from a wide range of fields — chefs, authors, social justice activists, tech entrepreneurs and others —  to Israel. A month later, Basch visited Tulsa for the first time. Four months after that, he relocated. 

He became acquainted with the work of the GKFF on the Israel trip and also worked closely with the foundation in an investment and economic development role, which led to the birth of his current company, Atento Capital. The Reality trip was also key for him in another way: he met his wife through a Reality connection, and the pair now live in Tulsa with their two kids and a dog.

“Tulsa is a great place for young adults and families because it’s a place where you can spend a ton of time with your family,” said Basch. “People tend to do family-oriented things much more than in other places. It’s also a place where you can really identify with purpose, and I think people who are purpose-driven are very much attracted to it.” 

Although Tulsa is a center of Jewish philanthropy, it has less Jewish religious infrastructure than other metropolitan areas hoping to attract young Jews. Congregation B’nai Emunah was founded in 1916 as an Orthodox congregation and is now a progressive Conservative congregation, reflecting demographic shifts among Tulsa Jews. Temple Israel, founded in 1914, serves the Reform Jewish community and Beth Torah Synagogue Chabad House is the community’s sole Orthodox option. There are no kosher restaurants, although one new business in Jenks, a Tulsa suburb, called Cookies, Cakes and Jews, is the area’s first Jewish-style bakery.

Kantor said that people her age connect Jewishly on a personal level and from a social setting rather than by joining a synagogue, so young adult Jewish life focuses on potluck Shabbat dinners, happy hours and “other Jewish events and programs that have some religious affiliation, but aren’t necessarily ‘prayerful,’” she said. About 80 young adults “trickle in and out” of Jewish programming, she estimated. 

Congregations manage the religious side of the city’s Jewish programming and the local federation makes an effort to engage people of all ages through holiday-themed events and PJ Library, the free Jewish children’s book service, she said. 

Tulsa-curious folks who join Tulsa Tomorrow cohorts experience the city for an extended weekend with a local’s perspective, Kantor said, visiting such places as  Gathering Place, the Mother Road Market food hall, a Black history center called Greenwood Rising, and city events taking place during the trip, for instance, OktoberFest in the fall. 

Participants pay only a small trip deposit: the rest, including hotel, flight, meals and activities, are paid for by the organization at an average cost of $26,000 to $30,000. Tulsa Tomorrow is an independent nonprofit that’s unaffiliated with any particular synagogue or community organization, but gets support from a number of them in addition to private and public funding.

“We have individuals who simply live and breathe Tulsa, whether they’re Jewish or not, who provide donations to us, whether it’s yearly or every few years,” Kantor said. “We don’t allow anyone or any organization to give in excess of $25,000, because we don’t want there to be any kind of superiority of one person or organization over the other.” 

There’s a big push to grow Tulsa beyond the Jewish community. The centennial of the 1921 Greenwood “Black Wall Street” Massacre — which destroyed 35 city blocks, injured more than 800, and may have killed as many as 300 people — prompted renewed interest in bringing Black entrepreneurs to Tulsa.

Another big supporter of Tulsa — and Jewish Tulsa, specifically — is the Zarrow family, which operates through a few separate foundations bearing its name. In 2020, the family  decided to devote philanthropy to address disparities rooted in white supremacy and systemic racism. 

The Zarrows also support the Jewish community. The Zarrow Campus in Tulsa is a hub for Jewish life, housing the Tulsa Jewish Federation offices, the Charles Schusterman Jewish Community Center, the Mizel Jewish Community Day School, the Sherwin Miller Jewish Museum — the only Jewish museum in Oklahoma — and the Tulsa Jewish Retirement and Health Center.

“The beauty in Tulsa,” Kantor said, “is that we really do have all of the resources and the means to support a Jewish life throughout all phases of the lifecycle.”