Sylvia Plotkin was the rebbitzin of Temple Beth Israel in Phoenix for 40 years, when it was the largest Jewish congregation in the city. This in itself was enough to make her a household name in the Jewish community, but she went far beyond that. She became an icon as the volunteer founder, director and chief fundraiser of a Judaica museum that came to be recognized as one of the major Jewish museums in the United States.
Sylvia was born in Seattle in 1925, the first child of Rose and Isadore Pincus. She grew up in that city and earned a degree in sociology from the University of Washington. While a student at the university, she organized and served as the first president of the Jewish Youth Council of Seattle.
The Pincuses were long-time members of Temple Dehirsch in Seattle, and in 1948 the congregation hired Albert Plotkin as assistant rabbi. He had just been ordained and this was his first pulpit. Sylvia met him a few days after he arrived, and a year later they were married.
Shortly after returning from their honeymoon, the couple moved to Spokane, Wash., where Albert had been offered the position of senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel. He remained in that pulpit for six years before accepting a similar position at Temple Beth Israel in Phoenix in 1955.
The idea of establishing a Judaica museum came about soon after Sylvia assumed her duties as the new rebbitzin of Temple Beth Israel. Always interested in the arts, she organized an art exhibit featuring various pieces of valuable Judaica owned by members of the temple.
The show was a huge success and after it was over, Sylvia remarked to Albert, "How sad that much of the priceless Judaica we saw on display will eventually be lost unless put in a museum. We need to start a museum so we can save it." He replied, "When the right time comes, we'll do it."
That right time came in 1967 when Temple Beth Israel added a cultural and educational wing to its Flower Street campus and, at Rabbi Plotkin's request, provided space for a library and a museum.
Sylvia excitedly set out to stock the museum. She contacted everyone she knew who owned Judaica and asked them to donate or lend their prize possessions to the temple museum, not just for safekeeping but also as a place where the collection could be put on public display.
Dr. Albert Eckstein was among the first to respond to Sylvia's request. He donated 30 antique spice boxes he had collected during his years of travel throughout Europe. A German couple heard about the museum and donated two Torahs, complete with coverings, breastplates and crowns, that they had personally rescued from a synagogue in Nazi Germany during Kristallnacht.
Other owners of valuable Judaica followed suit, as did Sylvia and the rabbi. Over the next decade, the collection grew so large it became necessary to catalog, define and create new venues for displaying the historic items. Sylvia delegated this responsibility to Beryl Morton (the late wife of Ira Morton), who joined the museum staff as archivist and special curator in 1978. She also served as editor of the museum newsletter and established the docent-training program.
From 1967, when the museum was founded, until her death in 1996, Sylvia acquired and created some of the most memorable and informative exhibits in Jewish museum history. Included were the "Tunisian Synagogue," "Replica of the Western Wall," "Anne Frank," "Jews of Ethiopia" and the "Dead Sea Scrolls."
The museum was initially named the Plotkin Judaica Museum. The day before she died, it was renamed the Sylvia Plotkin Judaica Museum. When told, she wept with joy.
Sylvia was survived by her husband and two daughters, Janis and Debbie. Both were hugely successful as directors of Jewish film festivals in San Francisco and Toronto.
Sylvia's spirit lives on through her museum. Currently, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum's exhibit on Oskar Schindler is on display.
Her spirit also lives on in the rabbi's soul. I know of no other man who loved, admired, respected and took such pride in a wife's achievements as he. Just last week, at age 85, Rabbi Albert Plotkin was named director of the Sylvia Plotkin Judaica Museum.
Ira Morton is a former syndicated columnist, author and veteran feature writer. He is a board member of the Arizona Jewish Historical Society, whose mission is to record and preserve the experiences and accomplishments of past, present and future generations. Visit www.azjhs.org.