Like many underwriters, Dan and Litten Boxser are press shy.
They’re accustomed to making things happen behind the scenes, not sitting down to discuss exhibit openings with prying reporters.
“It’s not that we don’t want to talk about ourselves,” says Dan Boxser, who runs an international business based in London. “We would just rather the story focus on the exhibit.”
Fair enough. So, here’s the scoop: The Longboat Key couple is responsible for bringing an exhibit to the Gulf Coast that’s piquing the interests of people in both the Jewish and African-American communities.
“Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow: Jewish Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges,” which runs through Jan. 21, at the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg, is based on a book by Gabrielle Simon Edgcomb and a PBS documentary by Joel Sucher.
It offers a rare glimpse into a little-known cultural exchange that took place in the United States years before the civil-rights movement swept through the deep South.
The Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City developed the touring exhibit as a vehicle to showcase the unlikely bond that developed between Jewish teachers and African-American college students during and immediately after World War II.
It includes artifacts, films, interviews and photos documenting a time when Jewish scholars, dismissed from their teaching positions by Nazis in 1930s Germany and Austria, fled to the United States to find work at American colleges and universities.
It includes firsthand accounts of how these displaced scholars, when faced with few job opportunities at white colleges, sought work at black educational institutions in the segregated South.
At the heart of the exhibition is the bond that formed between students and professors.
“They shared similar experiences with discrimination,” says Litten Boxser. “These two diverse groups of people understood and benefited from one another.”
The Littens, who three years ago relocated from Europe to Longboat Key, were inspired to bring the exhibit to Florida after having dinner recently with 12th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Charles Williams.
Williams mentioned that one of the students featured in the “Beyond Swastika” documentary –– civil-rights activist and author Dr. Joyce A. Ladner –– happened to live in Sarasota.
Soon, a dinner was arranged with Ladner, who suggested the exhibit be brought to Sarasota.
“The only place in Sarasota that could accommodate it was the Ringling Museum,” says Dan Boxser, whose parents, Herman and Sally Boxser, founded a diversity initiative in 2004 at Temple Beth Sholom.
The Ringling Museum wasn’t the right fit, so the couple contacted the Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg.
The museum was thrilled to get it. In the two years since the exhibit launched, it’s only traveled as far south as North Carolina.
Nearly 300 people turned out for the Oct. 22 opening reception, which featured a panel discussion with former students and scholars.
The Boxsers were blown away by the response –– and the diverse turnout. Fifty percent of the audience was African-American.
One of the panelists even called the next day to say the event was better attended than the original opening in New York.
Now the couple has organized a free program this month at Temple Beth Sholom to help drive more Sarasota residents to the exhibit.
On Nov. 14, the synagogue will host a panel discussion with Bonnie Gurewitsch, archivist and curator at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City; Carolyn Bass, executive director of the Florida Holocaust Museum; and Bill Watkins, president of The Association for the Study of African American Life and History.
The Boxsers say they’ve been so energized by the experience they’re open to bringing more diversity exhibits to the area.
“Living on Longboat Key, you tend to meet the people you play golf and bridge with,” she says. “It’s been a wonderfully rewarding experience. It’s expanded our circle.”
IF YOU GO
The Herman and Sally Boxser Diversity Initiative and the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) will host a free program at 6 p.m. Nov. 14, at Temple Beth Sholom. The evening will include guest speakers and a performance by the Hazzan Diane Nathanson and the Gulf Coast Community Choir. For more information, call 955-8121 or visit templebethsholomfl.org.
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