Departing Jewish Museum director leaves behind career of historic proportions

Marcia Jo Zerivit retires as the director of the Jewish Museum of Florida on Sept. 28. (Cristobal Herrera, Sun Sentinel)

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?