Best Museum - 1999
Sanford L. Ziff Jewish Museum of Florida
From the outside the Ziff Museum looks like an ordinary synagogue, but when you step inside and feel the bright sunlight streaming through the 80 stained-glass windows, you sense a vitality that comes from more than this building having once been a house of worship. Before there was a museum, there was a traveling exhibition called "MOSAIC: Jewish Life in Florida." Organized as a statewide project, "MOSAIC" comprises photographs, artifacts, and oral histories that depict the Jewish presence in South Florida since 1763. From 1990 to 1994 the exhibition toured thirteen cities around the nation. Its immense popularity persuaded organizers to find it a permanent home, which expanded into the idea of building the South's first Jewish museum. The site: the former Beth Jacob Synagogue, which had housed Miami Beach's first Jewish congregation and provided a symbolic reminder of the days when Miami Beach Jews were restricted to living south of Fifth Street. Long in disrepair and almost done in by the wrath of Hurricane Andrew, the building was given a two-year, $1.5 million restoration, a million of which came from Sunglass Hut mogul Sanford L. Ziff. Opened in the spring of 1995, the museum has since hosted an array of fascinating exhibitions, including photographer Neil Folberg's stunning images of historic synagogues around the world; a thought-provoking examination of Birobidzhan, the Jewish Autonomous Region created by Joseph Stalin in the late Twenties; and entertaining and informative looks at Jewish life in Miami Beach. A lively series of lectures and programs accompany each showing and have featured readings, scholarly discussions, music by klezmer bands, and recollections from long-time South Florida residents. Its past life as a synagogue serves the museum quite well, for it's indeed a place to contemplate and appreciate what it means to be Jewish -- for members of the faith and others.