Frequently Asked Questions

FAQs About Societies

IAJGS is an association of societies and organizations dedicated to the collection, preservation, and dissemination of knowledge and information with regard to Jewish genealogy. Genealogy societies may become (voting) members if they meet criteria outlined in the IAJGS bylaws. Other organizations with interest in Jewish genealogy, such as family associations, historical societies, libraries or archives, educational institutions, or genealogical vendors may be considered for (non-voting) associate memberships.
IAJGS offers members support for their growth, improvement, and stability through a variety of initiatives. IAJGS recognizes outstanding society volunteers through “IAJGS Salutes,” “Volunteer of the Year,” and “Lifetime Achievement” awards. A grant named for Rabbi Malcolm Stern and another in honor of John Stedman provide seed money for special projects benefitting Jewish genealogical research. In addition, IAJGS provides societies development resources on its website, in webinars, and in management sessions offered during the annual IAJGS conference.
IAJGS offers guidance and best practices for starting, developing, and growing a Jewish genealogical society. See resources on our website at: “Starting a Jewish Genealogical Society (JGS).” You will find information on society operations, marketing, program development, and more. For more information on starting a society, email us.

FAQs About Genealogy

Jewish genealogy, similar to all family history research, starts with some basics:

  1. Start at home identifying all you know about your family (names, dates, places, and relationships), searching for artifacts and records kept by your family, and interviewing your relatives about your common kin. Write down what you learn.
  2. Organize the information you collect with family history forms (a comprehensive list of free forms is at FamilySearch. In addition, forms specific to Jewish genealogy are at B&F: Jewish Genealogy and More or genealogy computer programs.
  3. Work backwards chronologically (from current to past) through records starting with what you know to what you’d like to learn.
  4. Take a DNA test(s). Test your earlier generation living relatives. In addition to information you will find through records research, DNA test results may provide important clues to your ancestry.
  5. List the surnames and towns you are researching on the JewishGen Family Finder.
  6. Access these resources:
    • Join a local IAJGS member society to take advantage of all the education opportunities they provide, including monthly meetings. See: members.iajgs.org.
    • Explore online research opportunities including the Jewish-specific research sites of our Topical and Associate Members. Many Jewish genealogy societies provide their own databases or include suggested websites on their web pages.
    • Attend the IAJGS annual conference. For further information visit the conference FaceBook page: www.facebook.com/groups/IAJGS.
    • Download the IAJGS “Jewish Genealogy Quick Start” Infographic and the “Jewish Genealogy Research Tips” Infographic available in English and Spanish.

Very few surnames may be linked unequivocally to those who practice or practiced Judaism. Surnames are not a Jewish construct. In a religious context, Jewish people are referred to via patronymics (their Hebrew name and their father’s Hebrew name). In most cases, surnames were imposed on Jewish people by government edict.

Many surnames of Jewish people were derived from languages spoken in local communities. Many surnames are shared by both Christians and Jews.

There are a few surnames derived from Hebrew and Aramaic (e.g., Melamed, Ashkenazi, Cohen, Levi, Khazan) that are likely particular to people of Jewish descent.

Search the Avotaynu Consolidated Surname Index and/or the Memi De-Shalit Database of Jewish Family Names at Beit Hatfutsot to learn more about specific Jewish surnames.

Identifying a family surname and place of origin are critical pieces of the puzzle that must be located before one attempts to find family records in the old country. In genealogy, it is always advisable to start with what you know and then work backwards in time. Collect as much information as possible regarding each immigrant and their children in the country to which they immigrated.

Typically, the best records for determining original surnames and communities are paperwork filed with the government in support of naturalization and passenger manifests. But other records, such as census enumerations, draft registration cards, social security card applications, marriage and death records, and burial plots may also provide community information and clues to original surnames. Broadening a search to include not only other relatives but also friends and associates may provide clarifying information. Your local JGS will likely include experts who can help you address these types of research questions.

Once you determine a surname and a possible town of origin, make sure to confirm your finds using maps, gazetteers, and old-world records research. Check websites of IAJGS Associate Members who may have indexed records from your ancestral communities.

Interpreting DNA test results for those who have between 50 and 100 percent Ashkenazic or Sephardic ancestry may be challenging due to endogamy (marriage within the Jewish population). Centuries of endogamy mean that those of Jewish descent may find they are related via multiple family lines. Research into identifying most recent common ancestors with your DNA matches may be complex. We suggest reading entries about DNA research among endogamous populations on the International Society of Genetic Genealogy Wiki: isogg.org/wiki/Endogamy. Another good source of information is the “Jewish DNA for Genetic Genealogy and Family Research” FaceBook group.

Many Jewish genealogy societies sponsor speakers expert at DNA analysis. Check local JGS listings for meeting schedules: members.iajgs.org.

If a DNA test result indicates a small percentage of Ashkenazic or Sephardic ancestry, it will likely be difficult to identify one’s Jewish ancestor(s). Best practice will include comparing one’s DNA with matches of known Jewish ancestry and building one’s family tree generation by generation back in time.

Knowledge of Jewish religious and cultural practices may help identify possible Jewish ancestors. Ancestors who practiced Judaism and/or were part of a Jewish community may be identified by their graves located within Jewish cemeteries. Or, they might have been identified as adherents to Judaism in records in the old country. Early 20th century eastern European Jews who immigrated to the United States might be identified as “Hebrew” on U.S. passenger manifests or shown as Yiddish speakers on census pages.

Most Jewish genealogical societies offer mentoring for those facing challenging research questions and often include genetic genealogy topics in monthly programs.

Absolutely not! While there are some locations for which Jewish records are scarce, there are many more that can offer rich Jewish genealogical information. Jewish genealogists have launched numerous successful projects with archives and other European repositories to locate, index, and digitize records of genealogical interest documenting once-vibrant Jewish communities. Several IAJGS Topical and Associate Members and are leaders in this area of research. In addition, IAJGS has started the Documentation of Jewish Records Worldwide project (DoJR) to build the first ever catalog—JCat—of all record collections holding Jewish genealogically relevant data. Subscribe to receive updates on the roll-out of the DoJR JCat.

The IAJGS has more than 90 affiliated societies world-wide. They provide a variety of services including meetings with invited speakers, research advice, classes, online databases, websites, volunteer projects, and genealogy libraries. In many cases, those who join a society may access additional member benefits. To learn if there is a society near you, check the Member Societies page at members.iajgs.org.

Jewish genealogical societies (JGS) are groups of like-minded researchers interested in Jewish family history. They welcome researchers of all skill levels, from beginners through professionals. Most meet monthly (online during the pandemic) and provide educational resources that may include formal presentations by local and national experts, mentoring workshops, one-on-one consultations, and opportunities for volunteers.

No. Jewish genealogical societies (JGS) welcome all who have interest in discovery of Jewish ancestors.

This video will help sort through the alphabet soup of Jewish genealogy organizations.

International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies