By Jonita Mullins
Three Rivers History
Joseph Sondheimer, a Jewish immigrant from Bavaria, was engaged in the fur trade in the Three Forks region long before Muskogee came into being. Based out of St. Louis, he shipped furs, hides and pecans out of Indian Territory from a warehouse he built near the Arkansas River.
When Muskogee was established by the M-K-T Railroad in 1872, Sondheimer was one of the town’s first residents, and his trading house was one of the most prominent businesses. He could then ship his goods by rail.
A number of other Jewish traders called Muskogee home in its formative years. The 1903 city directory lists a good number of Jewish families, some of whom may have been inspired by Sondheimer’s success in this wide-open community.
When Harry Kirschner arrived in Muskogee in 1905, he became one of several Jewish businessmen to own retail stores downtown, opening the Boston Store on Okmulgee Avenue. Kirschner, a Kansas City clothing manufacturer, had worked first as a traveling salesman, taking orders for his clothing in Muskogee and other Indian Territory towns. But he settled his family here and immediately became involved in community development.
Kirschner helped organize the first Jewish service, borrowing a Torah and bringing it from Kansas City. The Jewish community lacked one man to make a minyan, a requirement for a service, so Kirschner paid the transportation costs for a friend to travel from Oklahoma City. By 1911, Kirschner had joined with others in the Jewish community to establish a Jewish section in Greenhill Cemetery on land donated by Joseph Sondheimer.
The Jewish community continued to grow enough so that in 1911 they were able to charter the Beth Ahaba Temple, named for a supporting Temple in Richmond, Va. The Virginia congregation made a long-term loan of a Torah for Beth Ahaba. They laid the cornerstone for their building in 1916, after raising funds from all over the country, and also receiving much local support from Christian congregations. First National Bank, which had been organized by Sondheimer, F.B. Severs and other Muskogee businessmen, was the largest local funder of the Temple.
An Orthodox congregation established the Beth Israel Synagogue in 1918. Services there were conducted in Hebrew at the mission-style building on South Ninth Street.
Though the Beth Ahaba congregation was one of the largest in the region, they were only briefly able to have a full-time rabbi serve them. With the establishment of Camp Gruber, the number of congregants swelled as many Jewish soldiers were among those being trained at the Army base. From 1940 to 1942, Rabbi Max Nussbaum, having fled Berlin with his family, served at Beth Ahaba. From Muskogee, he went on to work in Hollywood and gained fame as the rabbi to the stars, including Elizabeth Taylor and Sammy Davis, Jr.
The Jewish community had declined in number over the years, and Beth Ahaba was finally closed. The Torah, after being on loan for 100 years, was returned to the Richmond Temple and many of the other furnishings and artifacts were donated to other Jewish entities including the Sherwin-Miller Museum of Jewish Art in Tulsa.
Reach Jonita Mullins at firstname.lastname@example.org.