Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities
Trains started rolling into Ardmore, Oklahoma on July 28, 1887. As the convergence point for two new rail lines headed to Santa Fe, Ardmore was initially little more than a tent town for railroad workers. But among that group of squat and flapping tents was the first sign of Ardmore’s permanence: Samuel Zuckerman’s general store. A month before the train’s arrival, Zuckerman applied for a merchant’s permit from the Chickasaw nation and set up a tent store east of the tracks. Zuckerman prospered from the growth of the town around him, and by the end of the year he’d traded in the tent for a frame building. That building would come to frame Ardmore’s Jewish history.
In 1888, Zuckerman turned his focus to coal mining, and sold the store to Jewish-German immigrant Max Munzesheimer, recently arrived from Texas. Munzesheimer called his shop The Iron Store, after the iron siding that distinguished it from the surrounding cottonwood shacks. He entered into a partnership with Samuel Daube, who had taken a steam ship from Hoffenheim, Germany to New York at the age of eighteen and then peddled his way west. When Munzesheimer died in 1903, Daube took sole ownership of the store.
Max WestheimerMax Westheimer was on the first commercial passenger train to pass through Ardmore. Another Hoffenheimer who had traveled from New York City seeking better work, Westheimer was headed for Ft. Worth when his money ran out. Planning to make enough to pay for the rest of his passage, Westheimer started working as a clerk at the Iron Store. Business was so good that he never made it to Texas. Instead, he went into business with Frank Wymore, and in 1890 they opened up The Blue Front, another mercantile store. David Daube, Sam’s brother, had come over from Germany in 1888, and he soon bought out Wymore’s share in the store. With the money from their stores, these early entrepreneurs—Samuel Zuckerman, Max Munzesheimer, the Daubes, and Max Westheimer, along with Zuckerman’s coal partner Jacob Bodovitz—were longtime leaders of the local Jewish community. In 1890, they led the way in establishing the Jewish Mt. Zion Cemetery and helped to found the town’s first Jewish congregation. Even as late as 1934, when Ardmore hosted the second annual Oklahoma B’nai B’rith conference, these same men and their families served in all of the official positions.
Former home of Westheimer & Daube storeWhen the store’s blue-painted front was bricked over, Max and Dave renamed their store Westheimer & Daube. The Iron Store closed around the same time, and Sam Daube entered into a partnership with his brother and Westheimer. The largest mercantile store in town, Westheimer & Daube did extremely well. The merchants often let customers buy on credit, taking their crops or land when they couldn’t pay. With the new land they had acquired, Max Westheimer and the Daubes broadened their economic interests, taking advantage of the oil, cotton, and cattle fields surrounding Ardmore. When Westheimer left the business in 1935, the store became known as Daube’s, and remained in business in Ardmore until 1990.
The store manager at Westheimer & Daube was Henry Baum, who had left Gainesville, Texas for a new job in Indian Territory. Westheimer & Daube grew rapidly, and by 1894 Baum was in charge of 40 clerks. In 1915 he opened up his own store, Baum’s Ladies’ Wear, which he ran with his wife, Regina (nee Blank). After Henry’s death, Regina ran the store with her sons until 1969.
Regina Blank’s family had come from Poland and Germany, and arrived in Indian Territory in 1892 to take advantage of the land rush. After her father died, her mother took a job at Westheimer and Daube to support the family. Regina, meanwhile, made fast friends with Rebecca Kahn, a newlywed from Indiana. After being kicked out of Catholic school for fighting, the orphaned Rebecca Stiefel went to visit her older brother in Gainesville. There she met Julius Kahn, who ran a liquor store and butcher shop in town. The Kahns moved to Ardmore in 1898, the year of the city’s official incorporation. Julius quickly got involved in local life, opening his own grocery and founding the Ardmore town band, for which he played flute. Rebecca, only 24 years old, was young, pretty, childless, and newly monied. She took great pleasure in riding one of her several horses around town. But despite her apparent youthful frivolity, Rebecca took the good of the community quite seriously, personally providing meals for several hungry families each day. The president of the Benevolent Society for many years, she helped found the Rebecca Kahn home for the homeless and Ardmore’s milk and ice fund, and was named Ardmore’s ideal mother in 1933.
When Julius Kahn heard from his friend Lewis Solomon that Lewis’ brother, Albert, was struggling with his baking business in Texas, Julius encouraged Albert to try his bakery’s chances in bustling Ardmore. Julius’ oldest son, Solomon, eventually married Albert’s only daughter, Frances Patricia Solomon, and Solomon’s Bakery remained open until 1977.
Former church that became Temple Emeth's first synagogue. Photo courtesy of McGalliard Collection at the Ardmore Public Library.Although a congregation, later called Temple Emeth, had been organized in 1890, it was not until Rebecca Kahn’s arrival that the congregation had a religious school. Often teaching the classes herself, Rebecca ran the school out of her home, while Temple Emeth’s services were held in the meeting halls of various churches and fraternal organizations around town. Morris Miller of Poland arrived in 1902 with the liturgical skills to act as lay rabbi. Three years later the congregation settled into classical reform practice, and started hiring a rabbi for High Holiday services. Later, Isador Kalish became Temple Emeth’s lay service leader. As one of the few Ardmore Jews who knew Hebrew, Isador got the job almost by default. His daughter Tessie Kalish married Max Westheimer in the first Jewish wedding in Ardmore. Tessie, in addition to becoming active in Ardmore’s musical and literary circles, founded the Temple Sisterhood in 1904. In 1910 she and Rebecca Kahn taught the temple’s first confirmation class. Rabbi George Fox of Fort Worth, Texas came up to lead the confirmation ceremony. In 1912, Sam Daube purchased the building that had housed the First Christian Church, where Ardmore’s Jews often held services, giving Temple Emeth its first permanent synagogue.
By 1914, Ardmore’s Jewish community had started hiring student rabbis from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati to officiate on the High Holidays. The first was Ira Sanders, who went on to have a long rabbinic career in Little Rock. During the rest of the year, Ardmore depended on weekly visits from rabbis based either in Fort Worth or Oklahoma City. Because the rabbis led their own congregations on Friday nights and Saturdays, Ardmore moved its weekly services to Sundays.
The crowded train yards surrounding Ardmore signaled the pulsing commercial growth of the young city. Unfortunately, the hot, flat land made the trains themselves as combustible as the profits they bore into town. On September 25, 1915, a train car full of casing-head gas was waiting on a side-line off Main Street for an engine to pull it to the refineries north of town. In the heat, the gas expanded, rising from the train car. Without any wind to dissipate it, the gas settled between buildings and in the recesses of doorways and windows. A stray spark hit the gas, and Main Street ignited, blowing out the front windows of the Westheimer & Daube store. The gas explosion left 43 people dead and many injured, most by flying glass. Still, Ardmore rebuilt, fueled by the fertility of the oil fields surrounding it, and the town kept growing nearly every year until the Great Depression hit.
Sholem Alechem Oil Field. Photo by David Halpern, courtesy of
Sherwin Miller Museum.
When oil was discovered nearby in 1913, Carter County became the highest oil producing area in the state. Thanks to the influence of William Krohn, the Ardmore oil industry had an unusual Yiddish flavor. Born in New York to Polish Jewish parents, Krohn was the editor of the local newspaper, the Daily Ardmoreite. Krohn was known for using the phrase sholem-aleikhem, which is Yiddish for “peace unto you,” and is used colloquially as a greeting. Together with a group of local oilmen, Krohn organized a fraternal society known as the Sholem Alechem club. The members of the society would often come to Ardmore to watch fresh oil spew from a new field, and Krohn made it a point to take any first-time visitors out for a soda to welcome them to town. One night in 1923, Krohn received word that oil had been struck in the nearby town of Velma, and he trumpeted the discovery in his newspaper. The drillers decided to call the site of their well the Sholem Alechem oil field, after the editor for whom they felt such affection.
Walter NeustadtSeveral Ardmore Jews got involved in the oil business, with some amassing tremendous wealth. Walter Neustadt, who married Max Westheimer’s daughter Doris, moved to Ardmore shortly after the wedding started an independent oil operation. Later, he joined forces with his father-in-law, to form the Westheimer-Neustadt Corporation. When Westheimer died in 1938, Neustadt became the leader of the oil company. His son, Walter Neustadt Jr., later took over the business, which became a huge financial success. Neustadt, Sr. and his son became major philanthropists in the state. Among the Neustadts’ better-known projects are the Max Westheimer Flying Field and the Doris Neustadt wing of the library at Oklahoma University. The family also established the Neustadt Literary Prize at the University of Oklahoma to honor foreign writers. According to Russian poet Vassily Aksyonov, “No other university prize is its rival. It’s second only to the Nobel.” The Neustadt family worked to improve Ardmore. In 1969, as chairman of the Ardmore Development committee, Walter Neustadt, Jr. brought the Uniroyal Tire Plant and Warehouse to Ardmore, and with it came an influx of jobs. The Neustadt family was named Ardmore Citizen of the Year in 1984.
While Sam Daube continued to own the big department store in Ardmore, he also got involved in the oil and cattle business, becoming one the city’s most prominent and successful businessmen. In the last years of his life, Daube focused on philanthropic work, keeping his store open through the Depression to employ local people and lending money to struggling businessmen. Like many Ardmore Jews, Daube had close ties to Germany, and he sponsored many of his relatives to escape from Hitler's regime. Two cousins, Lou Becker and Hugo Schiff, came to Ardmore from Germany with their wives in 1937 and worked at the Daube Department Store. After Sam's death in 1946, his family donated the entire city block on which his house had stood to be used as a public swimming pool.
Aerial view of Lake Murray, created by Louis Fischl.Louis Fischl also made his mark on the Ardmore area. Elected to the state House of Representatives in 1928, Fischl hoped to create a state park system in Oklahoma. In 1932, he was elected to the state senate and authored a bill that gave the state authority to create a man-made lake and state park just south of Ardmore. Oklahoma’s governor at the time, William “Alfalfa Bill” Murray, was a virulent racist who was not too fond of Jews either. Concerned that Governor Murray would veto the bill, Fischl convinced the governor that the people of Ardmore wanted to name the lake after him. Once it was dubbed Lake Murray, the governor signed the bill and Oklahoma got its first state park. Jean Neustadt spent many years as an executive on the state Water Resources Board, and a new lake just north of Ardmore was named in his honor.
Ludwig Isenberg was a German Jewish refugee who had a big impact on Ardmore and its Jewish community. Isenberg and his family left Germany in 1938, the day after Ludwig’s Bar Mitzvah. His father, Adolph, brought over the family Torah, the one Ludwig had just chanted over. After stopping over with Adolph’s brother in New York, the Isenbergs headed to Stillwater, Oklahoma, where a distant relative and a new life awaited them. Though Adolph remained rooted in the past, refusing to learn English, his son thrived, earning an architecture degree from Oklahoma State University. After graduation, Ludwig accepted a position with an architecture firm in Ardmore, and he moved there soon after with his new wife, Roena. In Ardmore, Ludwig quickly became involved with the Jewish community, and when the Jews of Ardmore realized their congregation had gotten too large for Temple Emeth’s current building, they commissioned Ludwig to design a larger space.
Temple Emeth's new synagogue. Photo courtesy of the McGalliard Collection at the Ardmore Public Library.In October 5, 1952, Temple Emeth dedicated its new building, which cost $90,000, in a ceremony featuring Rabbi Joseph Levinson of Temple B’nai Israel in Oklahoma City as the keynote speaker. Rabbi Milton Rosenbaum of Temple Beth El in Fort Worth, who regularly led services at Temple Emeth, also took part. The following year, the congregation hired its first and only full-time rabbi, Albert Belton. Born in Budapest in 1911, Belton had studied in Budapest, Prague, and Breslau, and served as a chaplain in the Hungarian army. After being sent to a forced labor camp, Belton spent a period of time working for the Hungarian underground before being caught and tortured by the authorities. He escaped Europe through Romania in 1938, and later became a rabbi in Dubuque, Iowa. The guest of honor at the Ardmore Ladies’ Aid Society and Sisterhood’s 50th anniversary dinner in the fall of 1953, Belton left Ardmore for New York City by 1959. The congregation was never large, with only 36 member families at its peak in 1962.
After Rabbi Belton left, Ardmore found itself depending once again on visiting rabbis and HUC students, but its greatest resource came from within the community. As the only member who knew Hebrew, Ludwig Isenberg assumed the position of lay rabbi, even printing up business cards that read “I can’t marry you, but I can bury you.” Continuing to use his family’s torah, Isenberg was “the mentor of the congregation,” according to Doris Neustadt. “I don’t think there’s any doubt about it that without him the Friday night service would have passed into oblivion.” Isenberg’s architectural and pastoral skills were also noticed in the larger Ardmore community. He designed many buildings in the city, as well as an annual Christmas ornament commissioned by the Ardmore Main Street Authority. Despite being raised Orthodox and kosher, Ludwig adapted to the classically Reform, English-heavy tradition that had been Temple Emeth’s since the beginning, and even gave the opening benediction at the local rodeo.
Ardmore’s Jewish population peaked in the 1960s, growing from 110 people in 1937 to 175 by 1968. Soon after, the community began to decline. Most of the Jewish children raised in Ardmore left for larger cities. When Walter Neustadt, Jr. wanted to retire, he could not convince any of his children to move back to Ardmore to run the family business. So he sold the business and moved to Dallas. Though Temple Emeth’s congregation had always included Jews from surrounding towns, including Lawton, Healdton, and Norman, only 26 families belonged to the temple by the 1976. A decade later, the average service was attended by 20 people at most. Still, meetings were regular; until the late 1990s, Ludwig Isenberg oversaw a Friday night service in the sanctuary at least twice a month, and on high holidays several dozen people would attend. Temple Emeth’s annual Seders, which were held in the social hall, drew crowds of around 100. According to Lynda Galoob, there were often “just as many gentiles there as there were Jews.”
Empty interior of Temple Emeth in 2012.The last simchas celebrated at Temple Emeth took place in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The 1989 marriage of Isenberg’s son, Mitchell, was the last wedding the temple ever saw, and around the same time the Galoob children became the congregation’s final B’nai Mitzvot, tutored by Isenberg. The Galoobs, originally based in Healdton, moved to Ardmore when son Harry opened a plastic surgery practice, while his father Henry operated Galoob Iron, which supplied the oil fields around Ardmore. By 1995, Temple Emeth had only ten contributing members and the congregation had begun to discuss dissolving. By the end of the decade, the temple sisterhood had disbanded. When Ludwig Isenberg died in 2003, his funeral was the last service held at Temple Emeth, and the building was closed soon after. In 2010, the temple was donated to
the Charles B. Goddard Center, which is working to restore the building for use as a community arts center.
Mt. Zion Cemetery - the last vestige of Ardmore's Jewish community.There are now only two practicing Jews living in Ardmore, but the city’s longstanding Jewish presence still abides. Mt. Zion Cemetery is mowed clean, spacious and serene with room for a visitor to walk, to lay flowers or stones. It’s kept that way by the cemetery fund, first organized in 1892, and still maintained by an endowment from Ardmore’s founding families—the Daubes and the Neustadts in particular. Harry and Lynda Galoob are the current backbone of the cemetery society. In addition to tending to the Jewish dead, they care for the living. In 1991, they founded the C/SARA Foundation, which provides rape and trauma crisis services to children and adults in the greater Ardmore area. In 2007, a non-Jewish father-and-son team, Bob and Tim Longest, renovated the former Daube store, which now houses an art gallery, a café, and a series of industrial lofts. While its business may no longer come from the rail lines skirting downtown, the Longests’ project is characteristic of the inheritance and repurposing of commercial space that has framed Ardmore’s economy since the beginning.