For Marcia Jo Zerivitz's retirement dinner, her board wanted a big event at a hotel. She said no. She wanted to be with her "babies" -- all 100,000 of them.
That's the books, clothes, photos, posters, furniture and other items she and her staff have gathered at the Jewish Museum of Florida, where she has worked as director since its birth in 1995. She says goodbye on Sept. 28, the eve of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year.
"Every time I look at a photo or artifact, I remember the people I went to in order to get them," says Zerivitz with her signature blend of idealism, marketing skill and motherly pride. "All these facts and photos and artifacts are my babies."
To collect them, she traveled 200,000 miles for eight years, leafing through albums, hearing family histories. They then found a home at the former Beth Jacob, the first synagogue on Miami Beach.
Before JMOF, and its precursor exhibition known as Mosaic, many Florida Jews thought their forebears didn't go back much before World War II. Now they know of a heritage that goes back to the 18th century, when the region was opened to Jews for the first time.
"We're in the memory business; we retrieve Jewish memory," she says. "The most important thing for Jewish people is continuity. We're making sure there will be a next generation of Jews."
As word has spread about Zerivitz's retirement, the honors have started. The Miami Beach City Commission proclaimed Sept. 14 in her honor. And on Friday, the Florida Association of Museums gave her a Lifetime Achievement Award at its annual conference in Tampa. Her retirement party at the musuem is Oct. 23.
"A dynamo, a force, with more energy than any three people I know," says Laura Hochman of Boca Raton, who helped foster the exhibition that grew into the museum. "Without her, we would have had a small exhibit at the JCC. It would have never reached the scope or magnitude of what happened."
Conceived in Broward
If JMOF was born on the Beach, it was conceived in the Broward suburbs. Around 1983, Hochman and others at the Soref Jewish Community Center in Plantation decided on a historical project about famous Jews from Florida.
"So much of our Jewish population hasn't been born in Florida," says Abe Gittelson, retired director of the Central Agency for Jewish Education. "They know about Jewish life in the Northeast, but not the history of the Jewish community in Florida."
With seed money from the Florida Endowment for the Humanities, and scholary guidance from Henry Green of the University of Miami, they traveled the state to gather information and raise interest. They finally decided they needed someone fulltime.
They chose Zerivitz, at the time the campaign director at the Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando. She had already worked with groups like Hadassah, Israel Bonds and United Jewish Appeal. She also worked five years as associate executive director at the Orlando federation.
Zerivitz needed all her gifts for Mosaic, the original history project. Starting in 1985, she roamed the state for eight years, finding items, learning histories, typing facts into a 512k Mac.
"It wasn't meant to be a portable computer, but it was for me," she says with a smile. "We were truly wandering Jews back then."
Although she visited 30 cities, she never stayed in a hotel. Whenever local Jews heard she was coming, they invited her to stay with them. Then they'd look through family albums together.
"That was one of my greatest joys," Zerivitz says. "To me, history is people. Everyone's life is a story."
The exhibition opened in 1990 at the Historical Museum of Southern Florida in Miami, then traveled to 12 cities. Each venue included a local exhibit, showing the immigrant experience there.
As the three-year tour was winding down, its board started to worry. Where would the 500 items go? Orlando, Tampa, Jacksonville?
Finally, they learned of Beth Jacob's synagogue -- a decaying structure built in 1936, scheduled for demolition even though it was on the National Register of Historic Places.
Zerivitz asked Miami Beach for a six-month reprieve, then raised $2 million in pledges and saved the building. The new Jewish Museum opened in 1995, then expanded to Beth Jacob's community hall 12 years later.
Zerivitz says JMOF is the first in the nation to focus on ethnic history in one state. Over the years, Zerivitz and her cadre have built a reputation for creative exhibitions, which draw about 40,000 visitors a year.
The shows have included superhero comics, Nazi and skinhead posters, and models of wooden European synagogues destroyed during the Holocaust. One show, "Yeast of Eden," had a cottage built entirely of breads from various ethnic groups. Another laid a map of Florida on the museum floor, letting people literally walk to the cities that Jewish builders helped develop.
Another innovation is the Glass Ceiling Award for women who have made achievements in various fields. Growing out of a program created by Hochman, the awards have honored more than 50 women thus far.
Among them is Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the first Jewish congresswoman from Florida. Zerivitz also got Wasserman Schultz to push for a bill declaring May Jewish American Heritage Month.
Zerivitz has also been instrumental in getting January declared as Florida Jewish History Month. The museum writes curricula on Jewish contributions to the state, then distributes them to teachers in all 67 counties.
Another success: fundraising. Over the years, Zerivitz has helped raise $34 million for the museum. This summer, the museum paid the last $1 million of its $2.5 million mortgage.
"We have no debt; all our bills are paid," she says with a smile.
Then why retire? She simply decided it was time.
"Twenty-five years is a long time to do a project. I've accomplished what I needed to do. The museum is very stable. Now it needs fresh ideas."
Those ideas will come from Jo Ann Arnowitz, chosen by the board as Zerivitz's successor. Arnowitz brings three decades of experience to the job, including the Israel Museum in Jerusalem -- and 13 years working with Zerivitz.
Arnowitz says her work will differ little from Zerivitz's. But she does plan to hire someone to expand the museum online, especially Facebook. "Some of our audience is so far along, if you don't get on social media, you won't reach them."
Despite the achievements, Zerivitz leaves some tasks for Arnowitz to finish. One is funding. The museum used to get $100,000 a year from the state; the latest amount was a mere $7,200.
Another challenge, ironically, is to get more Jewish groups interested. About 5,000 students visit the museum each year, but most are from public schools.
Finally, Zerivitz has long tried to link the museum with a larger organization. She says it's the only such place in South Florida that is not connected with a school or a governmental body.
She has approached the University of Florida, the University of Miami and the University of South Florida, with no luck. Initial contacts look promising with Florida International University, which already has two museums, but no written offer is on the table yet.
Cooking, dusting, lecturing
Meanwhile, Zerivitz has already moved toSt. Petersburg Beach, where her mother gave her a condo. She wants time to walk on the beach and read a denful of books she's been collecting.
She also plans to visit her six children and seven grandchildren in California and Hawaii. And she wants to spend more time with her second husband, Elliott, a retired wholesale baker -- who has cooked and kept house to free her for museum work.
"I couldn't have done what I've done without him," she says freely. "Now I'm going to resume the title of homemaker -- cook, shop, dust, iron."
Not that she'll give up her other love. She is still on the board of Jewish American Heritage Month. She's also seeking funding for a project to prove that Jewish "conversos," or converts to Christianity, lived in St. Augustine in the 1500s -- more than a century before they came to what is now New York City.
And she's still planning lectures on Jewish history: at the University of Central Florida on Nov. 1, then Fort Lauderdale on Nov. 10. As always, she'll speak without notes, just show photos and tell stories about them.
After all, she says, "You don't forget your babies."
Jewish Museum of Florida
Address: 301 Washington Ave., Miami Beach.
Current exhibitions: "Rabbi Irving Lehrman: His Life & Art," through Jan. 15; "Wooden Synagogues of Poland," through March 18; "Mosaic: Jewish Life in Florida," core exhibit.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday; closed Mondays and civil and Jewish holidays.
Admission: Adults $6, seniors and students $5, free for children younger than 6, free for everyone on Saturday.
Information: jewishmuseum.com or 305-672-5044.Copyright © 2015, CT Now