Naomi Wilzig’s philanthropy covered a range of causes in both New Jersey and Florida, beginning with the Jewish community — and reaching, perhaps most singularly, to erotic art.
Wilzig, 80, who died on April 7, grew up in Newark and lived for many years in Clifton before moving to Miami Beach. She was married to the late Siggi B. Wilzig, an oil magnate and banker who died in 2003. Together, they were supporters of a number of Jewish federations, including what is now the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
Naomi, who was a founder of the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, endowed the Chabad Lubavitch Camp Gan Israel on the Rabbinical College of America campus in Morristown in honor of her daughter Sherry Wilzig Izak of Livingston. She also supported the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, and the Florida Holocaust Museum.
In addition to her daughter, Wilzig is survived by her sons Ivan, also of Miami Beach, and Alan (Karin), who lives in New York City, and four grandchildren.
Speaking after her passing, Ivan Wilzig told the Miami New Times, “I feel like the luckiest man alive — certainly the luckiest son — to have had a mother who genuinely cared for people and made them happy, always putting others before herself. I’m proud that against all odds she helped the world become more loving and through art helped it be a better place.”
His mother began collecting art in the 1980s, and her interest in erotic works gathered steam in the 1990s after she went in search of a “conversation piece” for Ivan’s new home. It was an unusual choice for someone who grew up, as one of six children, in a strictly observant home that she described as filled with prohibitions.
Wilzig pursued her interest with characteristic enthusiasm and forthrightness. As she told a reporter from the Miami Herald in 2002, “At this point in my life, I’m a crusader to get John Q. Public to accept that erotic art is out there. We accept violence, but we go crazy over the idea of a nude body.”
In 2005, she established the World Erotic Art Museum in Miami. She ended up amassing around 4,000 pieces — the largest privately held collection of erotic art in North America and putting her 12,000-square-foot museum in a league with those in New York, Berlin, and Paris, and attracting a flow of tourists. That earned high honors from the city fathers of Miami.
Her husband was less enthusiastic about her calling. Naomi, who graduated from Weequahic High School in Newark and attended Montclair State Teachers College, married Siggi when she was 18. She told an interviewer some years back that he asked her to halt her pursuit of erotica, which she did for a while; it was only after his death in 2003 that she began to collect seriously, seeking out works around the world.
In 2006, Wilzig, a member of the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce, was honored with the Key to the City of Miami Beach. In 2011 the city proclaimed Oct. 16 “World Erotic Art Museum Day” in honor of her museum’s fifth anniversary. She wrote five books about the collection and took pride in the stringent accuracy of its classification by date and origin.
Wilzig also remained constant in her connection to the Jewish community. There was a mezuza on the entrance to the museum, and in 2009, she presented a restored Torah scroll to Chabad in South Beach. For the past five years, she underwrote Holocaust Education Week in Miami.
Daniel Staffenberg, the executive director of the Jewish Community Foundation of GMW NJ, said, “Naomi was a woman who lived life with passion and commitment in everything she did. Whether it was her philanthropy, art, friendships or family, Naomi was all in. She was one of those people who cherished each relationship and moment. You walked away from a meeting with her uplifted and smiling, each and every time. She always made time for you, made you feel special and that your work together had meaning and importance in her life.”
Services were held April 9 with arrangements by Bernheim-Apter-Kreitzman Suburban Funeral Chapel, Livingston.