Jewish film fest directors mother dies in Phoenix museum founder

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Sylvia Plotkin happily embraced traditional roles as mother and rebbitzin. But the rabbi's wife "had a larger destiny," said daughter Janis Plotkin.

That destiny was the Sylvia Plotkin Judaica Museum, one of the largest and most respected synagogue museums in the United States, housed at Temple Beth Israel in Phoenix, Ariz.

Plotkin, the museum's founder, fund-raiser and volunteer curator, died April 24 in Phoenix of breast cancer. She was 71.

She is survived by her husband, Rabbi Albert Plotkin of Phoenix, and daughters Debra Plotkin of Toronto and Janis Plotkin of Oakland, director of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

Other surviving relatives include brother Mel and sister-in-law Bea Pincus of Millbrae; and cousins Judy Pincus of Sydney, Australia; and David Pincus of New York.

A graduate of the University of Washington in Seattle with a degree in social work, Sylvia Plotkin found herself drawn to art — particularly Jewish art.

"She wanted everything to be beautiful," Janis Plotkin said. "She liked to use ritual objects as a way of teaching abut Jewish culture. It was just her natural inclination."

A "visionary and an innovator," Sylvia Plotkin "took a good idea and it grew into something important," Janis Plotkin said of her mother's work building the museum.

Upon arriving in Phoenix with her husband in 1956, Sylvia Plotkin began developing and curating art shows at the Reform synagogue her husband led until three years ago.

In 1966, the museum bearing Sylvia Plotkin's name opened with three gallery spaces. One gallery houses artifacts from a Tunisian synagogue, a second holds a Judaica collection that chronicles the history of Arizona Jewry and a third is used for exhibitions.

"Sylvia single-handedly began with the idea for an additional Jewish education and cultural facility at the temple. In 20 years it has come to be recognized as one of the major Jewish museums in the United States," said Seymour Fromer, director of the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley.

"Sylvia is a major loss to the Jewish museum community as well as to her family."

Plotkin served as a mentor to numerous young Jews interested in Jewish arts and culture, and trained hundreds of docents to the museum. She never took a salary.

"She was committed to the community," Janis Plotkin said. But "she fiercely loved and protected her family, too. She was a great support to my father as a rebbitzin. She embraced the role of rabbi's wife and contributed to his success.

"She was a role model."

Plotkin was buried at the Beth Israel Cemetery in Phoenix. Contributions can be made to the Sylvia Plotkin Judaica Museum, 3310 N. 10th Ave., Phoenix, AZ 85013.