Could you please give a brief description of your background, experiences, and achievements with genealogy, history, and the Jewish community for those who may not know?
A: I have lived in Florida for 56 years. Florida International University awarded me a Doctor of Humane Letters Honoris Causa in 2016 for my vision and leadership throughout my life to expand knowledge, enrich collective historic memory, cultivate diversity and strengthen Jewish identity and continuity.
I have been an innovative Florida community trailblazer for more than half a century, serving national, state and local Jewish organizations. I actually began raising money for the Jewish community in the fifth grade when I was president of my Jewish youth group. I grew up in West Virginia in a Zionist family. We had an activist rabbi who taught me to care for fellow Jews globally. It was there that I began to ask questions about who is related to whom. I was fascinated by the chain migration that brought Jews primarily from Eastern Europe to Charleston, West Virginia, and how the families kept the traditions alive by marrying within the small Jewish community.
When I went to college, I was president of Hillel, and again, asked questions of relationships and family hierarchies of those with whom I came into contact.
Throughout my path as president of Jewish organizations too numerous to list, culminating as president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando (1978-1980), I observed that the Jewish community in Florida had a major challenge — its continuity — and decided to focus on collecting and preserving for future generations the stories and material evidence of the contributions of Jews to the Sunshine State. I transitioned from Jewish community volunteer to Jewish professional in 1980 when I became Assistant Director to the Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando and then staff for the Community Alliance Project (CAP) to raise the funds to expand the Jewish Federation campus.
Then, my involvement became statewide. From 1984 to 1992, I traveled 250,000 miles throughout Florida, conducting oral histories and grassroots research and retrieving the state’s hidden, 250+ year Jewish history, resulting in a major archive and the MOSAIC: Jewish Life in Florida traveling exhibit (1990-1994).
During this process, I made family trees (handwritten as this was before the days of the internet and apps!!) to keep the families straight because as I moved from community to community, I found branches of families and was able to connect relatives that had been unknown to Floridian Jews. One example is the Kanner family. Eight siblings came from Husi, Romania, in the late 1880s, settled in different small communities, including Sanford and Orlando, and their descendants did not know of each other. Another is the Dzialynski family. As I dug up the Jewish histories of Jacksonville, Tallahassee, Gainesville, Tampa, Orlando, and many other smaller towns, I found members of their family scattered all over the state.
Under my direction, this MOSAIC project evolved into the Jewish Museum of Florida (1995), which documents and interprets the Jewish experience in Florida in the context of the immigrant experience of all American families. I presented 70 exhibits (>50% were originally created with my staff) and 500 educational programs. I initiated legislations for Florida Jewish History Month and Jewish American Heritage Month and authored many historical publications and films. This progression of collecting Florida Jewish memory is to identify Jewish families and their connections, strengthen pride in the accomplishments of Jews in the development of the Sunshine State and ultimately help ensure Jewish continuity.
I retired from JMOF in 2011 and continue to write and lecture on Jewish history and discrimination, consult in the field and curate exhibits. I reside on St. Pete Beach with my husband Elliott. I am credited with an innovative process that gave the world something they did not have before: the compelling story of one ethnic group in a hugely diverse Florida.
What is Florida Jewish History Month, and what are some things you consider important for the Jewish community to do in order to highlight and celebrate it?
In April, 2003, Florida’s Governor Jeb Bush signed a bill into law designating January, annually, as Florida Jewish History Month, which focuses attention on the tremendous contributions Floridian Jews have made in every area of the development of our state for more than 250 years.
I originated the idea and worked closely with legislators to translate the Museum’s mission to a statewide observance. Sen. Gwen Margolis and Rep. Gustavo Barreiro each sponsored companion bills that were passed unanimously and led to this historic event.
The Jewish Museum of Florida collects, preserves and interprets the Jewish experience in Florida since 1763, when Jews were first allowed to settle here. Sixteen percent of the American Jewish community lives in Florida. But while Florida hosts the nation’s third largest Jewish community, it is perceived to have a “new” Florida Jewish history starting after World War II. In reality, Jews were not allowed to live in Florida for its first 250 years (1513-1763). When Florida was taken from the Spanish, who permitted only Catholics, and turned over to the British in the Treaty of Paris following the French and Indian War, the first Jews settled in Pensacola in 1763. The man who brought Florida into statehood (1845) and served as its first senator (and the first Jew to serve in the U.S. Senate) was a Jew, David Levy Yulee.
Florida Jewish History Month is observed in congregations, organizations, schools and municipalities with month-long programming such as proclamations, lectures, panel discussions, exhibitions, tours and curricula developed by the Jewish Museum of Florida.
In the process of writing the resolution for the legislature, I thought it made sense to coordinate Florida’s observance with the national one, like Black History Month, Women’s History Month, Hispanic, Asian-Pacific Months, etc. I was astounded to learn that Jews had no designated month!!
In 2005, Florida elected our first Jewish Congresswoman, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of District 20. I approached her to help me get a national month for Jews. She worked very hard, and with advocacy from Jewish communities nationwide and the unanimous votes in the House and Senate, we achieved the establishment of this historic national annual observance.
On April 20, 2006, President George W. Bush proclaimed May as Jewish American Heritage Month (JAHM), calling upon “all Americans to observe this month with appropriate programs and activities that honor the significant contributions Jewish Americans have made to our Nation.” Annually, the US President issues a proclamation and in many years, has hosted an event at the White House.
The goal of this observance, which has a theme each year, is to heighten the awareness of a people, their history and contributions to the fabric of American life. It will help combat antisemitism—a phenomenon that, sadly, accelerates in our nation. And, similar to other national observances, JAHM will send a resounding message to all Americans through programs, exhibitions and educational materials that the history of Jews in America is an integral part of American History.
What is your experience with genealogy, and how can the broad topic of Jewish history tie into someone’s personal genealogy?
My experience is noted in the first question/answer. I think that the knowledge of Jewish history makes one’s personal genealogy much more relevant, alive and memorable when you can envision what roles your family members played in historical events. For example, when I wrote an exhibit on Florida Jews in the military (which also became a PBS film), families researched their family trees and photos to find relatives who served in any of America’s wars so they could be included in the story. It was the same for each exhibit (sports, entertainment, politics, building and development, immigration, etc.). It gives each person such a sense of pride to be able to link a family member to history.
What is one thing you would recommend that each of us could do to pursuit our Jewish roots?
- Ask questions of your relatives and those who knew your relatives. Albert Einstein said, “The important thing is NOT to stop questioning.” ASK THE QUESTIONS!
- A second really important thing is to label your photographs with names, dates, occasion, location, etc. Without the vital information, the photos are useless and will be tossed by future generations.
Marcia Jo Zerivitz, LHD
Founding Executive Director, Jewish Museum of Florida-Florida International University
Board Member, Jewish American Heritage Month