Oil City, Pa. became the center of the petroleum industry in northwest Pennsylvania after oil was discovered in nearby Titusville, Pa. in 1859. Oil City was incorporated as a borough sometime after the discovery and elevated to a city at some point before 1880.
The first Jewish settler in Oil City was likely Myer Lowentritt, who moved to the borough 1864, according to History of Venango County, Pennsylvania: Its Past and Present. Born in Cleveland to Bavarian immigrants, he studied law and medicine before undertaking stints in the fur business in Wisconsin and the grain business in Iowa. He came to Oil City to work in the petroleum industry. He was superintendent of the Cherry Valley Oil Company, later went into oil production and was a broker on the Oil City Oil Exchange.
The growth of the oil industry brought other Jewish settlers to the region. A small Jewish community started a Reform congregation in 1871 called the Progress Administration, according to the 1880 volume Statistics of the Jews of the United States. By the time of the publication of the book, the Jewish population of Oil City was approximately 58, and Progress Administration had 28 members with 24 students and one teacher in its religious school.
By the end of the 19th century, the Progress Administration had dwindled, and a debate between Reform and Orthodox wings of the Jewish community slowed efforts to start a new congregation and build a synagogue. A congregation called Tree of Life was founded in 1892, according to a survey from the Works Progress Administration Church Archives. The congregation rented rooms at the Second National Bank on Center Street until 1903, when it dedicated a synagogue at 17 Plummer Street. In a report from the dedication ceremony, the Jewish Criterion noted, “The old issue of orthodox and reform was raised” but “a compromise was effected, and the congregation is extremely conservative. A few yet remain on the outside, but in time they will likely see the wisdom of coming into the fold and joining with the others in upbuilding the religious life of the community.” The congregation grew in its early years and established a cemetery in Cherrytree Township in 1921.
At some point during the late 1890s or early 1900s, a group broke away from Tree of Life Congregation to form Sharith Israel Congregation. They rented a building on Elm Street and established the Sage Run Cemetery on Route 62. By 1904, Sharith Israel was defunct, although its cemetery remained operational for several decades. The group from Tree of Life derisively referred to the breakaway congregation as “Coxey’s Army,” after the crowd of unemployed workers who had marched on Washington D.C. in 1894.
The Jewish population of Oil City increased through the first three decades of the 20th century. The American Jewish Yearbook listed a population of 320 in its 1907-1908 edition, a 380 in its 1918-1919 edition and 500 in its 1928-1929 edition. The population began declining in the years before World War II. The American Jewish Yearbook listed a population of 375 in its 1940-1941 edition and a population of 360 in its 1951 edition. The membership of Tree of Life always included families from surrounding towns, particularly the Wein family, which lived in Clarion, Pa. until the mid-1990s.
Tree of Life Congregation established a Jewish Community Center in 1931, apparently within the walls of the synagogue, and created a Sunday School alongside its existing Hebrew school in 1934. The congregation began allowing mixed seating in 1942. Tree of Life renovated its Plummer Street synagogue in 1941 but began discussing plans for a new synagogue as early as 1944. The congregation launched a five-year building campaign in 1952 and dedicated a new “Shul-Center” on West First Street in 1957.
The Jewish population of Oil City declined in the decades after the new synagogue was dedicated. The American Jewish Yearbook listed a population of 165 in its 1984 edition and a population of 100 from a two-country region around Oil City—mostly likely Venango and Clarion counties—in its 1992 edition. By 1998, Tree of Life Congregation had fourteen members from towns throughout northwest Pennsylvania, according to newspaper reports.