Collections & Timelines

Collections of the Jewish Museum of Florida, originated by Marcia Jo Zerivitz, Founding Executive Director.

The Museum evolved from a grassroots statewide project to retrieve material evidence of the Jewish experience in Florida [since 1763] for a traveling exhibition, MOSAIC: Jewish Life in Florida. For this purpose volunteer task forces, involving hundreds of people, were organized in communities throughout Florida. The basis of the current collection is from that period (1984-1992) when 6,000 items in the communities were identified for consideration for the exhibition. That exhibition contained over 500 photographs and 200 artifacts that were on loan. When the decision was made to create a permanent museum, each lender was contacted about donating their items to the Museum; most did.

From a collection of 6,000 items in 1992, the Museum now cares for more than 100,000 items ranging from the Museum buildings (restored 1936 Art Deco synagogue and restored 1929 Synagogue, both on the National Register of Historic Places) to a complete bound set of The Jewish Floridian (statewide Jewish weekly begun in 1928 and ending publication in 1990).

In order for the collections to reflect and support the Museum's mission and for the purposes of retrieving for research, exhibitions and publications, the collection is inventoried according to the following themes:

Immigration: lands of origin; residences in North America prior to coming to Florida; motivation for immigration; pioneering settlements; and making a living (forms of economic activity). Example: A variety of family photographs and heirlooms and of travel documents as well as immigration papers in the Museum's collection illustrates how many Florida's Jews or their (grand) parents have come from elsewhere. These items are an important part of the Jewish experience in Florida. Yet, at the outside of the Museum's core exhibit, they also strike a chord with non-Jewish visitors, since immigration is part of virtually every American's experience, either first hand or as family lore.

Family/Synagogue/Institutions: observances of life cycle events (including obstacles and fulfillment); cycle of the year and forms of observance; daily observances; development of congregations; organizations established to meet Jewish communal needs; roles of Jewish professionals; organizations to meet educational needs; and family life.

Example: One of the artifacts in the Museum's core exhibit within this theme, illustrating cultural and ethnic traditions is the Chuppah, or marriage canopy, which means "covered with garlands." Originally it was the chamber in which the bride awaited her groom before the marriage. Eventually these chambers passed into disuse and the Chuppah came to be used as a symbol. The Chuppah is an integral part of the Jewish marriage ceremony, a practice that is continued today in Florida and around the world. Another object related to this theme is the 1940 Jacksonville Ketubah or wedding contract. The Ketubah was originally instituted at the time of the Babylonian exile to protect the rights of the Jewish married woman and to lend more dignity to the marriage. The text dates back to the second century B.C.E. and is written in Aramaic. It assures the woman that her husband will take care of her, provide for her, and cherish her and that if the husband dies or divorces her, she will not be left without financial support. The Ketubah in the collection is from the marriage of Margaret Fishler and Joel Fleet that took place on November 10, 1940 in Jacksonville, Florida. The Ketubah is still in use today as part of a traditional Jewish marriage.

Community Relations: inter-religious interaction; anti-Semitism; inter-ethnic relationships; political involvement, civic and social service involvement, response to world events.

Example: The Museum has a collection of photographs and artifacts documenting Florida Jewish military service in every war since the Indian Wars in Florida. For example, Fort Myers, Florida, is named for Abraham C. Myers, a Jew and chief quartermaster of the Department of Florida during the Seminole Indian War. Jews fought on both sides in Florida during the Civil War. Political involvement of Florida's Jews is extensive and the Museum has compiled biographies and photographs of more than 100 Jewish mayors; legislators, both statewide and nationally; judges and activists from the very establishment of the state.

The man who brought Florida into statehood in 1845 and built the first railroad across the state was David Levy Yulee, who also was the first Jew to serve in the U.S. Congress. Community relations also include the Museum's collection of artifacts relating to Jews and the civil rights and Soviet Jewry movements as well as the work combating anti-Semitism.

Contributions: politics and law; business, agriculture and industry; science; the arts and cultural activities; architecture and development; revival of Yiddish culture, condominium culture; development of tourism; intergroup relations and leadership in community causes; and participation in sports.

Example: Photographs and documents in the section "Land of Opportunity" in the Mosaic core exhibit tell the stories of "Florida Jewish crackers" working in agriculture and ranching, thereby counterbalancing the propensity to stereotypically view Jews as anything but ranchers or farmers. For example, Saul Snyder, a Russian immigrant who settled in St. Augustine shortly after the turn of the century, was a founder of the Florida Cattlemen's Association in the mid 1950s. Jews played a major role in developing hotels, the movie and tourism industries and in the citrus and tobacco industries as well. The Jews of Florida became integral to the development of Florida and the Jewish Museum has and continues to collect and conserve artifacts of all kinds in order to document these varied and wide-ranging contributions.

Some other significant holdings include:

  • Fannie Moss' Shell Apparel from a 1918 Jacksonville Young Men's Hebrew Association (YMHA) Purim party (a full dress, gloves, head covering and stockings made from Florida sea shells designed, sewn and worn by a Florida Jewish woman);
  • Dzialynski Pocket Watch with hours in Hebrew with a bas-relief of Moses with the Ten Commandments on the reverse (the father of the watch's owner came to Jacksonville in 1850 – the owner of the watch, George Dzialynski (1857-1937), was the first known Jewish boy born in Florida);
  • Porcelain Plate from 1865 (owned by Henrietta Brash of Apalachicola) that was kashered in the Gulf of Mexico, demonstrating continuity of traditions;
  • Confirmation Bible with ornate ivory and metal cover (printed in Vienna, 1911, presented to Ida Schwartz of Miami June 15, 1924);
  • 19th Century Community Wedding Rings from central Europe traditionally worn by the bride at her wedding as well as the week following and then returned to the synagogue stewardship (Jacksonville family donated to collection);
  • Hebrew/English citrus label used in an attempt to appeal to the Jewish market during the 1940s (courtesy of Museum of Florida History, Tallahassee);
  • Facsimile of the Rothschild Miscellany, originally printed in Italy in the 15th century, the most lavish Hebrew illuminated manuscript in existence;
  • Historic still images (photographs, negatives, slides and microfilm);
  • Oral History audio tapes and/or transcripts; film and sound recordings;
  • Archival materials (documents, newspapers, and other paper materials); textiles; works of art; religious objects; and
  • A collection of books for research and reference.

The Museum actively solicits new donors and collects material to continually expand its collection. The Museum's collections expand daily with an average of approximately 60 items donated each month. When the exhibition schedule is set, a call goes out to the statewide Jewish community for materials relating to the subjects and themes; thus, much of the Museum's active collecting efforts are exhibit driven. Materials come into the Museum literally every day from people throughout the country who have a connection to Florida Jewish life.

The collection is significant both for Jews and non-Jews.

For Jews: The major issues in the Jewish community are continuity and strengthening Jewish identity. The Museum's collections help create Jewish memory. Many rabbis and educators feel that our memory shapes our identity. In this case, if our memories are Jewish, we are Jewish; the analogy reaches to any ethnic group. Most of Florida's Jews were born elsewhere; most do not have memories of generations past in Florida. So there is a sense of urgency about retrieving the memories to pass them on to future generations. The stories told through the collections help our community reaffirm or create that memory. For example, an observant family used the Kosher Porcelain Plate, sited above, for Passover beginning in 1865 in Apalachicola. They kashered their Passover plates in the Gulf of Mexico illustrating how Florida Jews have maintained their traditions from over one hundred years ago when they were few in number and the choice to be non-religious would have been simple.

For non-Jews: There is a strong curiosity about Jews. Even though Jews are less than one percent of the world's population, Jewish people and issues are continuously in the news. There is an interest about who Jews are and why Jewish culture has survived when other cultures have not. Knowledge enhances understanding and tolerance, diminishes bigotry and prejudice.

For non-Jews the museum offers the opportunity to expand the capabilities of living in a diverse community. By learning about Jewish issues and history, visitors can relate how Jews are similar rather than different. For example, the building in which the Museum is housed, the restored 1936 synagogue, is the most important artifact in the museum's collection. Its location was dictated by the fact that when Jews began moving to Miami Beach, the only area in which they were allowed to live was south of Fifth Street (the Museum building is two blocks south of Fifth Street). When non-Jewish visitors learn why the building is at this location, they realize that they are not the only ones who may have faced discrimination. Thus, barriers are somewhat dissolved, and visitors enrich their vision of the world.