December 2009

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In Their Own Words
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Jewish Genealogy
Linking the past to the present

-- Daniel Loeb

Did your immigrant ancestors settle in Philadelphia, southern New Jersey or Delaware? From where did they come? How did they get to America? Do you know where to find more information on their lives? Do you know where to look and what is available?

Genealogy is the second most popular hobby in the United States, after gardening. Among the millions of people engaged in tracing their family lines are thousands of Jews fascinated by the origins, history and migration of their forbearers.

Local Genealogy Resources

The Philadelphia area has wonderful resources for researching family roots, immigration records and family histories. Jews wishing to explore their genealogy usually start at the Jewish Genealogy Society of Greater Philadelphia which is well-known outside of our area as well. "Weekly, we get queries requesting help from people all over the world searching for their local roots," says Mark Halpern, the Society’s webmaster.

The Jewish Genealogy Society holds meetings the second Monday of each month at Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park with interesting topics and renown speakers. In addition, Russian and German special interest groups meet four times per year. They publish a monthly bulletin as well as “Chronicles,” an award winning quarterly journal full of articles and information about Jewish genealogy with a distinct Philadelphia flavor. The genealogical collection is housed within Gratz College’s Tuttleman Library. Experts share their knowledge and love of genealogy through an annual half day seminar as well as periodic tours of Jewish Philadelphia and local genealogical facilities.

Another outstanding local resource is the Philadelphia office of the National Archives which serves the 5-state Mid-Atlantic Region (PA, MD, DE, VA, WV). In the Archives are Federal court and Federal agency records including census data and World War I and World War II service records. The National Archives holds a number of workshops to help people learn how to research their family history. Recent workshops included “Getting Organized for Genealogy,” “Exploring the Census,” “Internet Resources,” “Finding Your Immigrant Ancestors,” and “Introduction to the National Archives.” These workshops are usually held from noon until 2:00pm. Participants are welcome to bring their lunch and complimentary beverages are provided.

In the Philadelphia City Archive researchers will find historical photos and maps of the city by neighborhood, address or keyword. In addition to major vital records such as births, deaths and marriages, genealogists and others interested in family history have access to naturalization records and other court documents, public real estate records indexed by buyer and by seller, city directories, and tax records. You can also access archived police reports. (Note: Birth and death certificates for certain years are not available at the City Archive, but can be found in the Division of Vital Records of the Pennsylvania Department of Health in Harrisburg.

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, located at 1300 Locust Street in Philadelphia, is one of the most complete genealogy centers in the nation -- and the largest in the mid-Atlantic region. The Society gathers genealogical material from Pennsylvania and every other state east of the Mississippi. It provides access to nearly 20 million physical records such as wills, deeds, collections of personal papers, tax records, death and burial records, census records and synagogue records. A number of newspapers have been indexed for obituary and marriage notices including the Daily Advertiser (1796-1839) and the Public Ledger (1836-1875). HSP also offers workshops to assist genealogists with their family history research. Check their website for dates and times of courses such as “Getting Stated in Genealogy,” “Genealogical Resources at HSP,” “Tracing Your Civil War Ancestry,” and “Conserving Your Family Records.” Admission is $15 or free for members.

"The Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest's Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 million Jews by Patrick Dubois.

The Philadelphia Jewish Archives Center was featured last year in the Philadelphia Jewish Voice. Founded in 1972, the center collects and preserves the historical Jewish record of the Greater Philadelphia region including Southern New Jersey. In June 2009, their rich, historical collection came under the stewardship of Temple University's Urban Archives. Of particular interest at the Archive are the port and naturalization cards from the 1910's to 1940's that were maintained by the National Council of Jewish Women.

The Free Library of Philadelphia, on Vine Street just off the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, has a virtual Genealogy 101 course available online. The collection includes city directories (1785-1936) and phone books (1890-present) including reverse directories to find out who lived at a particular address. The newspaper archives date back to 1719, and the extensive map, print and picture collections are a great help to genealogy researchers.

The City of Philadelphia's Register of Wills provides access to all marriage licenses (1885-present) and wills (1686-present). They are open from 8am to 4pm at Philadelphia's City Hall.

International Genealogy Conference

Jewish genealogists from around the world met in Philadelphia recently for the 29th conference on Jewish Genealogy. The conference was co-hosted by the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (IAJGS) and the Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Philadelphia.

Conference attendees made new friends and discovered long lost cousins by participating in special groups related to specific geographic areas within the Jewish diaspora. A conference registration list aided in the research process since it was organized not only alphabetically, but also by surnames and towns or shtetls from which ancestors emigrated.

The opening session of the IAJGS Conference featured Father Patrick Desbois, distinguished French priest, author, and humanitarian, as the keynote speaker. His topic, "The Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest's Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 million Jews," is also the title of his book. The grandson of a deportee to the Nazi Rawa Ruska forced-labor Camp in Ukraine, Father Desbois is best known for his work in searching for and uncovering mass graves in Ukraine.

"My book is an act of prevention of future acts of genocide," Debois said. Winner of the B'nai B'rith International Award for Outstanding Contribution to Relations with the Jewish People, Father Desbois is secretary to the French Conference of Bishops for Relations with Judaism, advisor to the Cardinal-Archbishop of Leon and advisor to the Vatican on the Jewish Religion. Father Desbois is the president of Yahad-in Unum, whose mission is to increase knowledge and cooperation between Catholics and Jews. They are racing against time to reveal the untold stories of those who bore witness to the Holocaust by bullets. Since 2004, they have interviewed over 800 eyewitnesses and identified over 900 mass graves in Ukraine and Belarus. They hope to soon begin research in the Russian Federation.

Commenting on Father Desbois, Conference Co-Chair David Mink said, "We are extremely pleased to have Father Desbois speak at our conference. He has performed selfless acts of kindness for the many people of Jewish heritage who trace their ancestry to Eastern Europe and have not been able to record the death of loved ones on their family tree."

Additional speakers at the Genealogy Conference shared their knowledge on a myriad of topics.

  • Ron Aros introduced everyone to various kinds of mapping technology while Jay Sage talked about using Google Earth to create virtual tours on satellite maps that document the places associated with the history of one's family.
  • Dr. Jonathan Sarna, Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University discussed Jewish settlement patterns in the US, and chronicled the history of American Judaism.
  • Certified Genealogist Nancy Levin described the experiences of immigrants who traveled to America in steerage class. Levin has been in full-time private genealogical research practice since 1991. A contributor to the Avotaynu Guide to Jewish Genealogy, she is also the author of several journal articles.
  • Michael Marx led a hands-on computer workshop and gave give two lectures on Advanced Googling for Genealogists.
  • Yefim Kogan, creator of the ShtetLink Kaushany, Moldova talked about researching the history of Jews in Bessarabia in the Russian Empire in the 15th to 19th centuries.
  • Warren Blatt, the managing director of JewishGen.org an affiliate of the Museum of Jewish Heritage, gave several presentations: one on Jewish Surnames, one on Jewish Given Names, and one with Debra Kay-Blatt on Using Pre-1826 Polish Parish Records in Jewish Research.

The conference Resource Room provided various research resources for attendees to use while at the conference. Books, maps, microfilms and other items useful in family research were available. A most popular aspect of our Resource Room was the availability, on a complimentary basis, of specialty web-based databases that normally require a subscription such as Ancestry.com; British Newspapers from the British Library; FindMyPast.com/AncestorsonBoard.com; Footnote.com; Godfrey Library; JewishGen.org; NewsBank.com; NewspaperArchive.com; ProQuest ; United States Holocaust Memorial Museum; and WorldVitalRecords.com. Many of these companies were on hand to sign up users wishing to access the databases from home.

Exhibitors offered a wide array of services and products. Bookstores offered a variety of books on genealogy and related topics. The Philadelphia Phillies had the Philly Phanatic on hand to highlight the Jewish contributions to baseball. Local award winning television and video producers Carol Rosenbaum and Michael Murderick had a booth for Family Video Stories which produces custom videos to commemorate the lives and achievements of multi-generations of families. The DNA Shoah Project [ www.dnashoah.org ] and Family Tree DNA [ www.familytreedna.com ] promoted the use of genetic testing to establish family relationships. The NYU School of Medicine and the Victor Center for Jewish Genetic Diseases encouraged people to get tested for genetically transmitted diseases such as Tay-Sachs, Familial Dysautonomia, Canavan and a variety of other genetic diseases that afflict the Jewish community especially.

There were also walking tours of Colonial Jewish Philadelphia and of the Jewish Quarter in South Philadelphia where 125,000 Jewish immigrants lived around the turn of the century. Bus tours featured our area's historic synagogues, and the Jewish Agricultural communities founded in South Jersey by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) of New York and Philadelphia.

Jewish Film Festival

"My Mexican Shivah" is about how the death of a man results in the celebration of his life.

A group of Jews in Bombay, a Polish Catholic woman who rescued 16 Jewish neighbors during the Holocaust, the Borscht Belt, the Jewish quarter in Mexico City--these are just a sampling of the diverse topics presented at the annual Jewish Film Festival during the Jewish Genealogy conference. The globe-spanning films and film makers included:

  • "The Longing: The Forgotten Jews of South America," with Argentineian producer/director Gabriela Bohm discussing her film;
  • "In Search of Bene Israel," the story of 3,500 Jews in and around Bombay;
  • "The Rise and Fall of the Borscht Belt," which depicts the Catskill hotels of the 1950s and 1960s;
  • "My Mexican Shiva," set in Polanco, the Jewish quarter of Mexico City, spoken in Spanish, Yiddish and Hebrew;
  • "House of Life," the story of the Jewish cemetery in Prague, narrated by Claire Bloom, with producer Mark Podwal on hand to discuss the film.
Hilariously funny, Orthodox-convert comedian Yisrael Campbell is "the Matisyahu of comedy." "Circumcise Me" shares his riotous stand-up act and the wild life story that inspires...

Closing Banquet

The conference concluded with a sumptous banquet catered by local Philadelphia restaurant Max & David's accompanied by a generous helping of the stand up comedy of Yisrael Campbell. Yisrael Campbell is an original and erudite comedian who has lived in Jerusalem, but now lives in New York City. However, the journey that led Yisrael to The Holy Land began a long time ago in a place far, far away: he actually was born "Christopher Campbell," raised Catholic, and grew up in Philadelphia. A typical Campbell joke is the fact that his aunt is a nun, "which, of course, makes Jesus my uncle." Campbell converted to Judaism with a Reform rabbi, but says that a "spiritual hunger" led him to have a second conversion with a Conservative rabbi. On a four month visit to Israel in 2000 he decided to have a third conversion and live as an Orthodox Jew. Most recently, a documentary film has captured Yisrael's unique story and chronicles his life in the soon-to-be released film "Circumcise Me."

The complete 2009 International Jewish Genealogy Conference program can be found online. Conference recordings are also available online or on CD for $14 for a single session or $149 for the full conference collection.

The 2010 International Jewish Genealogy Conference will be held in Los Angeles, California. Tours of the city's old Jewish neighborhoods including Boyle Heights and the Breed Street Shul will be available. There will be a special focus on pioneer Jews and those who created the arts and entertainment industry. A major Sephardic program is planned to complement Eastern European research. Tracks on Yiddish theatre, klezmer music and vaudeville will be offered while the annual film festival will return to its star-studded Hollywood roots. With any luck food from the Milky Way will be on hand.

Next year in Los Angeles!

To view previous editions of "Living Judaism", please click here.

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