Rabbi Charles Sherman

Rabbi Charles Sherman, originally from the East Coast, has called Tulsa home since 1976 when he came to serve Temple Israel. Now retired, he spends his time as a mediator and serves as a rabbi on cruise ships during Jewish high holy days.

This month marks 45 years since Rabbi Charles Sherman arrived in Tulsa from the East Coast to begin his rabbinate at Temple Israel. Oklahoma might not have been his first home, but it’s where he continues to live after retiring from the pulpit in 2013.

Soft spoken and thoughtful, his voice is genuine as Sherman explains his appreciation for not only Tulsa, but also the congregation where he continues to serve as rabbi emeritus. Through community projects and his work, he has spread a message of love and respect to thousands. 

Where did you go to school/university? Why?

I was 16 when I graduated from high school and went to college at the University of Pittsburgh. My parents were convinced it was good to go close to home. That also meant living at home. The University of Pittsburgh was new to a trimester semester, and that enabled me to do my undergraduate work in two-and-two-thirds years. I majored in philosophy and had a pretty good idea that I was going to go to graduate school. I graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 1963. I went to the Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati for six years of seminary work and was ordained in June 1969. 

What led you to seminary work?

I actually thought I was going to be a lawyer. I was a political science major in my first couple years of college. I took a philosophy course, and I found I wanted to take another philosophy course. I had been very involved in my temple’s youth group and was exposed to some young rabbis at leadership institute camps. I switched from thinking I was going to be a lawyer to becoming a rabbi. 

What was one of your most defining moments?

My ordination on June 7, 1969. It was the culmination of challenging and fulfilling seminary years. It was challenging academically with a lot of linguistic work; languages are not my strength. It was fulfilling in the sense of serving student pulpits. I had a student pulpit in McGehee, Arkansas.

I would fly out of Cincinnati every other Friday to Louisville, to Memphis, to Pine Bluff — three planes if everything went well. Then I would get a rental car in Pine Bluff and drive 60 miles to McGehee to a temple that served three communities. I served some of the finest people I’ve ever met, and it’s one of the reasons, frankly, that I came to Tulsa. I knew Oklahoma bordered Arkansas, and I figured the people in Oklahoma couldn’t be that much different than people in Arkansas.

What year did you arrive in Tulsa?

I became rabbi of Temple Israel on July 1, 1976.

What age do you feel right now and why?

I’m 77 and I feel 77. I share my life with Nancy, my wife, partner and best friend of 56 years. We have three grown children who are married to three wonderful people, and we have four grandchildren — 11 to almost 16 years of age. The pandemic of course changes things, but we get to share their lives. With my youngest grandchild in New Jersey, his Hebrew school is online (during the pandemic), so every week I work with him through Zoom. We have a wonderful hour or so together.

Our oldest grandchild who lives in Louisiana is learning how to drive, and to be able to share experiences not only with our children, but also our grandchildren is nice. After I retired, I became a cruise rabbi, so three times a year, for the high holy days, Hanukkah and Passover, Nancy and I were aboard a (cruise) ship (to handle services). We have seen the world. We have seen all seven continents. We never anticipated doing anything like this, so it’s truly been a bonus and we enjoyed it. We’ve been fortunate.  

How would your friends describe you?

They would describe me as intelligent, thoughtful, hardworking, and a good listener and communicator. 

What would people be surprised to know about you?

Most people don’t know that, in my retirement, I trained and have become a mediator for the past seven-and-a-half years as part of the early settlement program. We are all volunteers, and this is our way of giving back. The first year, I worked in small claims court doing neighborhood kinds of mediation. What I wanted to do and thought I was well equipped to do was family and divorce, but you can’t start there.

I went to the University of Oklahoma for 40 hours of instruction. That will make you feel old. I was over 70 years of age taking 40 hours of classroom work in four, 10-hour days. I hadn’t been in the classroom in many years other than teaching. It was intense but well worth it. My favorite mediation is family and divorce. I thoroughly enjoy it, and most people don’t know this side of me.

If you could witness any event of the past, present or future, what would it be?

I would like to be around long enough to witness the happy wedding ceremony of my youngest grandchild, meaning hopefully that the other three are already happily married, too, and I’ve been able to be present for those joyous events in our family life. I think I would feel fulfilled. 

It sounds like family is a large part of your life and that you stay in touch with them often.

We do. I am a tech-no; I’m not good at this technology stuff, but the pandemic has forced me to sharpen my skills and do a lot more.

What was a “worst time” and how did you pull through it?

In July of 1997, I visited with my doctor. I was having some unexpected discomfort and pain. He ordered me to report to the hospital immediately. I had quintuple bypass surgery. I was in some ways at the peak of my professional career, and this came out of nowhere. I had no heart problems that I knew of before.

It was a wakeup call as well as a setback. How did I overcome it? By learning to be much more patient than I thought I was able to be because I finally learned my body simply needed all my energy just to heal. If I were doing a multitude of other things that zapped my energy, it was only impeding my healing. I’m kind of thick-headed sometimes, but it got through. I learned to relax and listen more to my body.

What concerns you today?

I’m concerned with how divided our country is. I love this country, and I want only the best for it. There are two distinctly different visions of what we are and what we should be, but actually I think there are more than two. People have a variety of visions, and we are not communicating civilly or politely. We are not sharing our differences respectfully.

Politically, it means gridlock. Our government is often handicapped, and we’re locked into our positions instead of saying, “Alright, we don’t fully agree, but let’s see what we can agree on and move forward, progress.” We’re very much on different pages and that’s concerning because there’s a lot that needs to be fixed. Unless we are at least committed collectively to fixing things, we’re not going to improve this world.

How do you measure success?

Leaving my family, my community and maybe those beyond the community better than I found them. If each of us can finish our life with the knowledge we’ve improved the world a little bit, that’s success.

What is a favorite Tulsa memory?

I spent the first seven years of my rabbinate as the assistant associate at a large congregation in Hartford, Connecticut. I knew that eventually I wanted my own pulpit. I would read placement lists. Rabbis are independent. There’s no bishop who moves you; it’s all up to the individual congregation and individual rabbi.

I read of an opening in Tulsa, Oklahoma. A rabbi was retiring after 25 good years. Tulsa had a nice, healthy-sized congregation, so I put my name in. I went through the screening process, and the temple invited both my wife and me to visit for an interview. It was the last weekend of January 1976. It was 2 or 3 degrees below when we left Hartford.

We were dressed appropriately in overcoat, gloves, scarves, etc. and got on the plane. When we got off the plane in Tulsa, it was 70 degrees. The president of the congregation picked us up at the airport. I’ll never forget him asking us if we wanted the air conditioner turned up in the car. We saw people outdoors golfing. It was a beautiful sunny day.

The president wanted to impress upon us, people coming from the east, that Tulsa is a very sophisticated metropolitan city. He didn’t want us to think that there are all cowboys and Indians here. He was laying it on thick. We drove by the newly opened performing arts center. He explained that Tulsa has resident philharmonic, opera and ballet companies.

He took us to our hotel, the Camelot. As we drove up, he was a little concerned because there were a lot of pickups in the parking lot and even some horse trailers. Tulsa hosted a large rodeo the last weekend in January, and the Camelot hotel was the headquarters hotel. It was loaded with the people he did not want us to think were Tulsans. This poor man aged 10 years before me. He wanted to even change our reservation, but we loved it. Nancy and I had never been so close to cowboys and cowgirls, beautifully dressed. They were warm and lovely people. 

Describe a perfect weekend in Tulsa.

Friday night, I’d be at Temple Israel with our temple family and maybe even invited to be the guest preacher. I love preaching and miss preaching regularly. Saturday, I’m the brunch maker. I make for the two of us a favorite brunch.

It’s a spring or fall day, the perfect seasons in Tulsa. We take a leisurely walk in the neighborhood. We come back and sit on our new screened-in porch on our patio, and I relax while reading the latest issue of TulsaPeople magazine. I take my afternoon nap, and then we go to dinner with some close friends.

Sunday afternoon, there is an Oklahoma City Thunder basketball game. We love Thunder basketball, but we have never been to a game in person. We would go to Oklahoma City for the game and have great seats close to the Thunder bench.  

What place in Tulsa do you miss most?

This question is the first that I feel is very reflective of the pandemic. For almost 45 years, our life has centered around Temple Israel. The temple has been closed now for 12 months because of the pandemic. I miss being in that building and worshipping with my fellow congregates.

Following the service, we would have a reception to sit with friends over coffee and something sweet to catch up on each other’s lives. I desperately miss that. I can’t wait for the pandemic to be over, for things to reopen and for us to be able to reconnect.

As good as technology is, it’s not the same. We watch several Friday evening services. Two sons and a daughter-in-law are rabbis, so we watch our children in the pulpit, conducting service. Sometimes the rest of our family is on Zoom, so it’s not that we haven’t been able to worship, but it’s not the same as sitting, singing and praying with people. 

What have been the most significant changes you’ve experienced in Tulsa?

Tulsa is so much more diverse. Restaurants are a good example. Maybe, when we moved here, there was one good Italian restaurant. That’s not true today. You have a choice of many great restaurants. If you just look at the restaurant scene, you see the diversity. We see the diversity in neighborhoods, too.

It used to be I would work with school systems to help our Jewish children who were often one or two or three Jews in an entire school and sometimes overwhelmed by the Christian culture of the public school system. I would work to help schools understand that not everybody is a white Christian.

I don’t think you have to do that anymore because of the increased diversity with groups such as the growing Hispanic and Asian communities here. There’s a much greater appreciation for diversity. We have an equality center here and an appreciation for all different lifestyles. Gathering Place is a wonderful idea because we need to gather as the beautifully diverse, colorful community that we are today.

Gail Ellis is a communications specialist in Tulsa and enjoys telling stories about the people, places and history of America’s magic city.

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