By Deborah Fineblum Schabb/JNS.org
Young folks with backpacks slung over shoulders, middle-aged Americans in designer jeans, men in black velvet kippot, Israelis in khaki shorts. A thousand of them all packed into workshops, seminars, lectures, and resource rooms for nearly a week. Hailing from 20 different countries, they were brought together by an abiding passion for hunting down their Jewish past.
From July 6-10, seekers determined to unearth the next clue to their family’s story attended a whopping 272 presentations, breakout sessions, and workshops—and logged on to 20 much-exercised computers programmed to deliver genealogical services.
Spotlighted at the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (IAJGS) 35th annual conference were the newest trends in online research and freshly released records from Israeli, American, and European sources, as well as recent strides in DNA testing and the ever-growing field of Holocaust research.
By holding its conference in Jerusalem this year, IAJGS convened a crowd that was more than one-third Israeli, something that organizers considered a significant accomplishment.
“Not only are we bringing people from all over to Israel, the capital of the Jewish world, we’re also encouraging Israelis who have never had a chance to trace their family to be a part of it all,” says Canadian-born Michael Goldstein, who chaired the conference.
Goldstein was sporting genealogy’s version of an ice-breaker: a name tag listing his family names and towns.
“I always wonder, of all the people sitting in a workshop on Polish Jews, how many of us are cousins?” he says.
Conference sponsors included some giants in the genealogy field, including Israel-based MyHeritage and its spinoff Genie, home to a worldwide family tree; Ancestry.com; FamilySearch (a program of the Mormon Church); the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum; and JewishGen.
Root-searching has never been more popular. Witness the surge in scrapbooking, memoir writing, and NBC’s “Who Do You Think You Are?” As many providers as there are serving this growing hunger for understanding the past, there remains limitless room for growth, says Ancestry.com genealogist Crista Cowan. Her company, for instance, has 2.4 million paying subscribers, not counting those who drop by the website without signing up for services.
“We’ve come a long way from microfilm in the library,” she says. “And there’s still much more that can be done.”
As the field is popularized, it is simultaneously seeing a push for academic standards and processes. On hand at the conference was Neville Lamdan, who chairs the International Institute of Jewish Genealogy and the Paul Jacobi Center in Jerusalem.
“We look at macro subjects, giving the field new, more academic tools to grow with,” says Lamdan, who has a Ph.D in history.
Easing the root-searching process is an avalanche of new resources.
“Every day new records being released and available for public use,” says conference chair Goldstein. When JRI-Poland’s Stanley Diamond announced at the conference that 60,000 new genealogical records were just released by the Polish city of Warsaw, an excited murmur went through the crowd.
Technology, in turn, eases seekers’ paths. When one Facebook user at the conference posted a photo of Jewish schoolgirls in 1922, a response came from Costa Rica, where someone recognized his mother in the group.
Additionally, many of those researching their roots are baby boomers entering retirement, with the time and motivation to discover where they came from.
“Now we’re able to do it right,” says Laurence Harris, who heads up genealogy services for the U.K.’s MyHeritage. “Early in my career, I just gathered names to fill in the family tree. But then the people began to be real to me, where and how they lived, what they were like, why they moved somewhere at a particular time.”
Assimilation and the continued passing of the generation of Holocaust witnesses also creates a special hunger for Jews to connect with the past.
“I want to write our family stories down so the next generation will know what it means to be Jewish,” says Susan Klarreich of Teaneck, N.J., following a workshop on memoir writing. “I want to build the bridge to connect them.”
Not long ago, Jews lamented that their trail of evidence had grown cold.
“I knew non-Jews have their Mayflower and their Pilgrims, but with so many records destroyed, how was I going to find anything?” says IAJGS President Marlis Humphrey. “But I was wrong. Now I even know where my daughter’s musical talent comes from.”
Jewish searchers of recent memory have been aided by DNA testing. In the nearly two decades since the test for the kohain (Jewish priestly) gene emerged, science has learned to identify countless other gene patterns from previous generations. Indeed, Catholics with an oral tradition of Jewish ancestry—many of them descended from Spanish conversos—often turn to DNA to solve the mystery once and for all, says Max Blankfeld, who administers such testing for Houston-based FamilyTree DNA.
“Many of them say to us, ‘If I am a Jew and come from a Jewish family, I want to live as one,’” he says. “Being Jewish is not just a faith. It’s now proven that we are a people, a nation, and a family.”
That family has been through a lot together, including the Holocaust. Conference attendees learned about “Gathering the Fragments,” Yad Vashem’s campaign to rescue personal Holocaust items, including a makeshift calendar. The museum’s Shoah Victims’ Names Recovery Project, meanwhile, now has 4.5 million names in its database.
There is a palpable uptick in interest in the Holocaust, says Cynthia Wroclawski, who manages the names project.
“We are realizing that all Jews are connected to each other and the past,” she says.
Susan Edel, even as she coordinated more than 100 conference volunteers, kept her ears open. Her volunteer job for Israel’s Magen David Adom emergency services provider is to search records for the specific purpose of reuniting long-lost families.
The wide range of user-friendly services impressed conference attendee Baila Brown of Jerusalem.
“To have everything under one roof is amazing,” says Brown, who recently traveled to the Polish town where her grandparents lived. “What I can find out about my family here in one week would have taken me months working at home.”
Michael Tobias—a resident of Glasgow, Scotland, and a vice president at JewishGen—has found cousins as far away as Uruguay and Canada.
“Now my family is bigger than I ever dreamed,” he says, revealing that the secret to searching is never accepting failure.
“You have to be a little obsessed to keep going after you hit a brick wall,” says Tobias. “Though you might put it away for a while, you always come back with a new way around it or a new resource until you find what you’re looking for. It’s both detective work and a puzzle.”
At the same time, personal growth beckons.
“[I research my roots] for my children, yes, but I also have a greater sense of myself,” says Wolf-Erich Eckstein of Vienna. “The people who came before me, they’re a part of me now.”
SIDEBAR: Tips for budding Jewish roots-searchers
Genealogist Emily Garber offered the following advice at the IAJGS conference:
1. Begin at home. Ask your relatives, even younger ones, what they’ve heard about the family’s history. Collect family stories, but maintain some skepticism. (Remember the “telephone” game?)
2. Organize yourself. Plan ahead by downloading free forms and family trees, and setting up a system of binders and word documents, one for each of your four grandparents’ families.
3. Work backwards. Move from the known to the unknown and record all research results, even if they seem obvious. Share with relatives as you go on e-mail, blogs, social media, etc.
4. Be alert to all sources of information. Don’t overlook the following: club and synagogue membership lists; birth, death, and marriage certificates; gravestones (many include birthplace and date and parents’ names); newspaper articles; wills; land records; ship manifests; census reports; photos; city directories; draft cards; and immigration and naturalization forms.
Other tips gleaned at the conference:
1. Check out Cyndi’s List (http://www.cyndislist.com/), categorizes genealogical websites and what they offer.
2. The spellings of names of people, towns, and even countries change, so be flexible.
3. Many online services are free, while others (even on the same website) are not, so read the fine print carefully and decide how best to invest your time and money.
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