Telling the story of Florida's Jews

March 06, 1994|By Orlando Sentinel

One old synagogue is a swank nightclub where the beautiful people groove to techno music. Delis that once served knishes and kreplach now dish up trendier fare. Bearded Jews in long coats have been displaced by leggy models and jet-setters.

Yet even as Miami Beach's once dominant Jewish population fades, a new Jewish presence is rising just blocks away from South Beach's trendy Ocean Drive. A vacant art deco synagogue that for 52 years housed the city's first Jewish congregation is slated to reopen in December as the first Jewish museum of its kind in Florida.

Artifact by artifact, photo by photo, the Jewish Museum of Florida will tell the story of the state's Jewish history and culture, a story assembled from the scrapbooks, the attics, the oral histories of Florida's living Jews.

The 230-year-old story, little known until 1990, is taking on new importance as more Jews marry non-Jews and raise their

children without Jewish traditions.

Issue of identity

"One of the critical issues in the Jewish community today is the decrease in the sense of identity, the concern about continuity," says museum director Marcia Zerivitz, a longtime leader in Orlando's Jewish community who moved to Miami to spearhead the museum's creation. "If you have Jewish memories you'll always be Jewish, so what we're doing is creating, renewing or bringing to the front the Jewish memories that will give Floridians basis on which to pass on their heritage."

That is not to say that the museum will be for Jews only. It will be a cultural, not a religious, institution, a place where visitors will see the Jewish experience in Florida as a reflection of their own -- or any other ethnic group's -- experience. Just like Cubans, Puerto Ricans or Haitians, Ms. Zerivitz says, Jews have balanced their heritage with the values of the larger society.

Even in the early days, when it wasn't easy, when their numbers were small, when there were no institutions, Jews kept kosher. They buried meat in the ground to keep it cold. They had weddings in orange groves with handmade chuppas, or wedding canopies.

"We want people to understand that Jews have a very rich, long history here," Ms. Zerivitz says. "We want to make people aware there is a Jewish heritage in Florida."

Until 1990, that fact was little recognized. Many people -- Floridians and non-Floridians, Jews and non-Jews -- assumed Florida's Jewish history began on Miami Beach, after World War II. That's when Jews began moving to the state in droves, turning Miami Beach into an epicenter of Jewish life. Although Miami Beach's Jewish population is dwindling, Florida is home to 780,000 Jews, giving it the third largest Jewish population in the United States, behind New York and California. The majority of Florida Jews live in Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.

But the state's Jewish heritage did not begin in South Florida.

The earliest documentation of Jews coming to Florida was in 1763, when three men moved from Louisiana to Pensacola. They came for the same reason Jews have moved throughout their history: They feared persecution. Louisiana had just changed from French to Spanish rule, and Spain prohibited non-Catholics from living in its colonies. At the same time, Florida reverted from Spanish rule to British rule, making the southern territory more inviting to Jews.

"When you confront people with the information that there were Jews in Florida for 230 years they are absolutely shocked," Ms. Zerivitz says. "Even the most sophisticated scholars sit there with their mouths open."

Though researched in bits and pieces by a few historians, Florida's Jewish history was first assembled for "Mosaic: Jewish Life in Florida," a 600-item traveling exhibit that debuted in 1990. It is that exhibit's vast and largely unseen inventory of roughly 8,000 photographs and artifacts that will form the museum's core collection. Among its treasures: citrus crate labels printed in Hebrew and the crocheted yarmulke Orlando resident Rachel Kanner entered in the 1907 Orange County Fair.

Initially envisioned as a one-week program, "Mosaic" mushroomed into a project without end. After drawing 300,000 visitors during appearances in 11 Florida cities, "Mosaic" opened Feb. 3 at the B'nai B'rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum in Washington.

Conceived in 1984 as a program on Jewish life in the United States for the elderly at a Broward Jewish community center, "Mosaic" narrowed its focus to Florida Jews at the suggestion of Henry Green, the exhibit's founding director and head of Judaic studies at the University of Miami. Supported by $840,000 in grants and contributions, the project took off like an avalanche, gaining even more momentum when Ms. Zerivitz, who spent 30 of her 54 years in Orlando, joined the project as coordinator in 1988.

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