Look to the Future and Start a JGS to Find the Past

By Carol Davidson Baird

The original version of this article appeared in AVOTAYNU, Vol. XIII, No. 3, Fall 1997.

As editor of the Jewish Genealogical Societies' (JGS) Presidents Exchange newsletter and chair of the exchange meetings at annual summer seminars for three years, I learned that many fledgling JGSs need assistance with a variety of topics, including budgets, programs, and policies of varying sorts.

In the United States, the craze to research one's Jewish ancestors started in the late 1970s with the television program Roots. It caused many Jews to realize that if an Afro-American could trace his roots mostly from oral history, then we Jews also could find our elusive ancestors. The publication of Dan Rottenberg's pioneer book Finding Our Fathers and soon after that Arthur Kurzweil's From Generation to Generation helped us realize that documents and published records exist that can complement our family stories.

Birth of the San Diego Jewish Genealogical Society...

Many JGSs were established after some intense impetus pushed a family historian to realize that his or her community needed a Jewish genealogical society to guide them and others into the world of foreign vital statistics documents, ship passenger lists and Russian consular records. After Arthur Kurzweil spoke so inspiringly at Congregation Beth El in La Jolla, California in 1982, Roberta Wagner Chameides Schoenholz Laznichi Oppenheim Weissberg Berman was ready to create a society in nearby San Diego. She wanted to share her genealogical discoveries and knowledge of (and questions about) techniques of family history research with others having the same interests. She realized how exciting it would be to talk to others interested in the same thing she was; the more people who knew what surnames she was researching, the more information she was likely to get through networking.

At the conclusion of Kurzweil's talk, Roberta's husband Ralph asked how they might start a local JGS. Roberta no long recalls exactly what Kurzweil advised, but after the meeting ended, 10 excited individuals handed Roberta pieces of paper with their names, addresses and telephone numbers on them. That was the start of the San Diego Jewish Genealogical Society (SDJGS).

Roberta scheduled a meeting at her home and mailed postcards to each of those ten people inviting them to come. Only three showed up, but they persevered and scheduled another meeting. More came the second time, including a talented writer who wrote an article about the budding group for the local Jewish newspaper. Because Roberta already belonged to the JGS in Los Angeles (JGSLA), that group gave her the names and addresses of other San Diego-area residents who also were members of JGSLA. By the end of the year, SDJGS had 27 members.

Incorporation and tax-exempt status did not come until several years later when it became obvious that the society needed donations far above nominal dues. By that time, it had many members with various talents who could offer legal advice, chair committees and represent the society to the general public.

...and the Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Washington

The story is a familiar one. The Jewish Genealogy Society of Greater Washington (JGSGW) began with an article sent to a local journal, which gave the fledgling society the journal's mailing list for that area. Press releases were sent to area synagogues and Jewish community centers. At the first meeting, the need for such a group was emphasized and, of course, refreshments were served. Volunteers were encouraged to come forth to aid in incorporation, to create a publication and to recruit speakers such as the late, wonderful Rabbi Rabbi Malcolm Stern who inspired many people to start new societies in their hometowns.

IAJGS will "parent" baby societies until they can walk on their own and then will be present for consultation as the society grows to maturity. Once a society has attained adulthood, it can assist other beginning societies in neighboring localities. It is not necessary to reinvent the wheel; each society has something to offer another society and we all benefit when we exchange ideas for operation, programming and research techniques.

Starting a New Jewish Genealogical Society

Just as the pioneer Jewish genealogical publication Toledot aided the JGSGW with a mailing list, each new society will receive, upon request to AVOTAYNU, the International Review of Jewish Genealogy, its subscriber mailing list from that society's locality.

Societies that began in the late 1970s and 1980s did not have the many aids at their disposal that exist for a new society today. It is much easier to start a JGS today, and very exhilarating to create a forum for other like-minded individuals to share genealogical research tools and references, as well as their personal knowledge about the history of their family's geographical and cultural backgrounds.

To reach potential members, the founders of new societies should consult the Jewish Genealogy Family Finder and lists of participants in past summer seminars (usually kept by the host societies), send a computer message about their formation to JewishGen and always remember to do the obvious: post a flier or meeting notice where Jews congregate, such as local synagogues, Jewish community centers, Jewish retirement communities and Jewish day schools. Advertise your first meeting at a local public library with a genealogy department. One good way to attract a core group of founders and interested potential members is to advertise a beginner's class right away and capture the enthusiasm of all who come to network together.

Ale yidn zaynen eyn mishpkhe -- all Jews belong to one family. Indeed we do, and to find our roots and links to that family of mankind, belonging to or creating a new Jewish genealogical society will connect you to the world of family history of a people that has been committed to enumerating descendants since Bereshit, the Book of Genesis, the book of creation.