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Jewish Museum Of Florida Shares Stories Of Struggles

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In 1887 Marcus Weinkle’s loving parents buried him alive. That act likely saved the 13-year-old’s life and certainly set in motion an odyssey that took him from his native Russia to, eventually, Central Florida.

  His story – and that of countless other Jewish immigrants with a Florida connection – comes alive in the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU on Miami Beach.

Filled with artifacts of the sacred – a chuppah wedding canopy, a pair of fluted Sabbath candlesticks from Germany – and the everyday – a Russian samovar for preparing tea, a pocket watch featuring Hebrew numerals and owned by the first known Jewish boy born in Florida – the museum paints a three-dimensional picture of the individuals and families who left behind homelands to build new lives in the Sunshine State.

“Everyone’s family came from somewhere else,” explains Jo Ann Arnowitz, executive director. Visitors to the museum, especially children, “come and see photographs and artifacts here that are familiar to them from their own homes, and they realize the basic message ‘we are all more alike than different.’”

The first Jews in the state are believed to have arrived in Pensacola via New Orleans in 1763, when Spain’s ceding of Florida to Britain made way for non-Catholics. Jews from around the world would subsequently emigrate to the state by the thousands, and today 16 percent of all American Jews live in Florida.

Family photographs dating to the 1800s adorn the museum walls, as do snapshots featuring the protagonists of true success stories: business people such as Joe and Jennie Weiss, founders of the famed 100-year-old Joe’s Stone Crab on Miami Beach, whose descendants still run the restaurant; developer Nathan Stone, who built the Blackstone hotel at a time when most Miami Beach properties turned away Jews and African-Americans; astronaut Garrett Reisman, who in 2010 took with him into space the presidential proclamation of Jewish American Heritage Month, a signed copy of which hangs in the museum.

Little attention is devoted to the tragedy of the Holocaust, which Arnowitz says is addressed extensively by other institutions.

“Our museum is a very positive, uplifting story of what people have done when they’ve overcome something like that and how they’ve have gone on to develop their lives and their families and continue on.”

The small section of the museum’s permanent installation that does touch on the Holocaust focuses on the Florida link to the SS St. Louis, a German ocean liner that in 1939 carried more than 900 Jewish refugees seeking asylum from Nazi persecution. After being turned away by Cuba, the ship was prevented from docking in Miami Beach and returned with its passengers to Europe.

Ironically, during failed negotiations with the U.S. government, the ship dropped anchor off shore, within view of the current museum.

Back then, the two buildings in which the museum is now housed – both on the National Register of Historic Places – served as the synagogue and social hall for the beach’s first Jewish congregation.

The second, larger of the two Art Deco-style buildings was designed by renowned Art Deco architect Henry Hohauser, who was a member of the congregation. Its stained glass windows, each bearing the name of a family or individual who contributed financially to the synagogue’s construction, draw attention for their beauty – and great interest for the name inscribed on one: Meyer Lansky.

“They say his seat was right down in front so that he could get out quickly if he needed to,” says Arnowitz of the notorious gangster who worshipped there.

The museum’s collection began in the mid-1980s as a traveling exhibit of materials donated by families throughout the state. It took up permanent residency in its current home in 1995, and last year became a part of Florida International University.

As for Marcus Weinkle, to keep him from serving, and possibly perishing, in the czar’s army, his parents faked his death by holding a funeral and burying him in a shallow grave. At nightfall Weinkle made his escape with the goal of reaching what was then Palestine. He took with him a small sack of food and a traditional Jewish torah, a scroll inscribed with Hebrew scripture.

For several years a sheepherder in his adopted country, Weinkle eventually wound his way to Florida. To this day, his Miami relatives borrow from the museum that very same torah – now on display for visitors – to celebrate family religious events.  

This item was reprinted with permission from FIU Magazine. The Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays – Sundays. Admission is free on Saturdays, and all other days: $6 for adults, $5 for seniors and students, free for children under 6, or $12 per family.