As I was researching the Jewish history of Tulsa, Oklahoma, I came upon a wonderful photograph in the 50th anniversary book for Congregation B’nai Emunah, published in 1966. The photo shows the victorious B’nai Emunah bowling team which won the city’s Church League in 1953, besting such competition as the First Christian Church, St. Paul Methodist, and First Presbyterian. It was the vintage haircuts and bowling shirts that first drew me to the picture, but it soon got me thinking about the changing nature of our congregations and communities.
In his 2000 book Bowling Alone, Political Scientist Robert Putnam traces the decline of social organizations, like bowling leagues, that used to connect individuals to a larger civic community. In many of the community histories that I write for our Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, I mention Jewish involvement in local Masonic Lodges or Rotary Clubs. Today, few people my age join such organizations. B’nai B’rith, which used to connect Jews across the country, is now a shell of its former self. In the Jewish world, we have seen a weakening of ties to our communal institutions, and much effort made to engage a new generation of Jews that evince little interest in joining a synagogue or supporting the Federation.
Earlier in the 20th century, there was a movement to build synagogue-centers, the “shul with a pool” idea, that would bring people to the synagogue for more than just worship or Hebrew School. Indeed, when Tulsa’s Reform congregation, Temple Israel, built a new synagogue in 1932, it had a gymnasium with a basketball court along with locker rooms. Interestingly, the new building did not have a sanctuary, as members met for services in the general purpose auditorium until they could raise enough money to build a proper sanctuary later, (which they never did).
By the 1950s, the time this photo was taken, social organizations, like bowling leagues, were commonplace. It was only natural that a church league would exist in a place like Tulsa, sometimes called the “buckle of the bible belt.” The involvement of a team from B’nai Emunah, an Orthodox (though soon to be Conservative) congregation, reflects both the strong ties within the Jewish community and the integration of Tulsa Jews into the city’s civic life.
What has Jewish life lost, now that so many of us “bowl alone?” Is there something we can learn from our parents’ and grandparents’ generations about bringing individual Jews together to form a cohesive community? Perhaps the answer isn’t a synagogue bowling team, but the Jewish world’s great contemporary challenge is to find ways to bind us together with fellow Jews as well as to the larger community.