“My life has been all about roots and memories to ensure Jewish continuity. Like cut flowers, Jews wither without our roots. Our collective memories are our roots.”
Public historian Marcia Jo Zerivitz, L.H.D., Founding Executive Director, Jewish Museum of Florida–FIU, is a native West Virginian who has lived in Florida for more than half a century. A leader for Jewish causes since the fifth grade, she has been a trailblazer in the American and Floridian Jewish communities serving national, state, and local organizations and has broken the “glass ceiling” as the first woman in many positions. In 2016, Florida International University awarded her a Doctor of Humane Letters Honoris Causa for her vision and leadership throughout her life to expand knowledge, enrich collective historic memory and cultivate diversity.
Arriving in Orlando in 1966 as a military wife, she immersed herself in everything Jewish, primarily ORT, Hadassah, her congregation, Israel Bonds and Jewish Federation, becoming president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando (1978–80) and then associate director (1980–84). She led missions to Israel, initiated new programs and managed the campaign to expand the campus. She was invited for the first United Jewish Appeal (UJA) Women’s Young Leadership Cabinet (1974) and served on AIPAC’s national council. When she transitioned to the Jewish professional world (1980), two early tasks were as fundraiser for Hadassah’s Camp Judaea and Pinellas County Jewish Day School. Throughout, Marcia Jo observed that the Jewish community in Florida had a major challenge—its continuity. She committed to focus on collecting and preserving, for future generations, the stories and material evidence of the adherence to traditions and contributions of Jews to the development of the Sunshine State—to find “roots” for Florida’s Jews.
From 1984 to 1992, she traveled 250,000 miles throughout Florida, recruiting volunteers to conduct grassroots research and retrieve the state’s hidden, 250+ year Jewish history. As part of the MOSAIC team, she raised the funds, created a Collections database and helped develop the storyline for the MOSAIC: Jewish Life in Florida exhibit that traveled to 13 cities (1990–94). For each local community, she created exhibits and educational materials.
In 1995, under her direction, this project evolved into the Jewish Museum of Florida (JMOF), now housed in two adjacent restored former synagogues, on the National Register of Historic Places. JMOF collects, preserves, and interprets the Jewish experience in Florida in the context of American and world Jewish history, art and culture and also to reflect the immigration experience of all Americans. In 16 years, Marcia Jo produced more than 70 exhibits (>50% were originals created with her staff) with 500 educational and cultural programs, and led the Museum to be accredited by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), an honor earned by less than 10% of the nation’s museums. This is perhaps the first museum in the US to document the history of one ethnic group in a state and the Collections were originated and organized by Marcia Jo. For the Museum, she led the fundraising for $36 million including a $3 million endowment fund. Of this, $7.5 million was in public grants. She wrote the majority of the grants and served on grants panels for the State of Florida.
Marcia Jo initiated the legislation for both a Florida Jewish History Month (FJHM) each January and a Jewish American Heritage Month (JAHM) each May to increase awareness of the contributions by Jews to the state and nation and she serves on the JAHM board.
In 2009, as part of the Museum’s strategic plan, Marcia Jo began a search for an academic partner to help ensure the long-term impact and outreach of the mission of JMOF. She initiated contact with Florida International University, and, in 2012, the partnership was finalized, resulting in JMOF–FIU.
Marcia Jo co-authored Florida Jewish Heritage Trail (250 sites in 44 cities with Jewish historical significance), published by Florida Department of State. She authored the photo-documentaries Jews of Greater Miami and Jews of Tampa and all Florida entries for Encyclopedia Judaica. She was editor/writer for ninety-six issues of JMOF’s quarterly membership newsletter TILES and her scholarship has been used in films, historical journals and books. She has been published nationally and internationally. Marcia Jo was the main on-camera narrator for the 2014 PBS documentary, A Call to Serve: Florida Jews in the U.S. Military, based on a JMOF exhibit. In 2017, she curated Kehillah: A History of Jewish Life in Greater Orlando and wrote the exhibit catalog.
Marcia Jo retired from JMOF in October 2011. She continues to curate exhibits, research, and write books and articles on Florida Jewish history. She gives PowerPoint lectures on topics related to Jewish history and discrimination and consults in the field.
Marcia Jo’s seminal book Jews of Florida: Centuries of Stories was released in 2020. This first comprehensive history of the Jews of Florida from colonial times to the present is a sweeping tapestry of voices spanning centuries. Despite not being officially allowed to live in Florida until 1763, Jewish immigrants escaping expulsions and exclusions were among the earliest settlers. They have been integral to every area of Florida’s growth, from tilling the land and developing early communities to boosting tourism and ultimately pushing mankind into space. The Sunshine State’s Jews, working for the common good, have been Olympians, Nobel Prize winners, computer pioneers, educators, politicians, leaders in business and the arts and more, while maintaining their heritage to help ensure Jewish continuity for future generations. This rich narrative—accompanied by 716 images, most rarely seen—is the result of three-plus decades of grassroots research by author Marcia Jo Zerivitz, giving readers an incomparable look at the long and crucial history of Jews in Florida.
She resides on St. Pete Beach with her husband Elliott whom she credits as her partner on this journey. As a cultural anthropologist, she is credited with an innovative process that gave the world something they did not have: the compelling story of one ethnic group in a hugely diverse Florida.