July 25, 2002
Web Helps Jews Trace Genes
"The number of people doing Jewish genealogy has unquestionably grown enormously."
Seven years ago, Montreal businessman Stan Diamond arranged to index the Jewish records of his ancestral town of Ostrow Mazowiecka, Poland, because he wanted to trace the path of a rare genetic condition within his family tree.
Diamond's goal was medical as well as genealogical, since he sought to alert potential carriers of the beta thalassemia trait of the hazard involved. Offspring of two carriers stand a one-in-four chance of acquiring a blood disease that is always fatal, usually before they are 20.
After tracing his own ancestry back to 1760, and finding and warning many distant relatives with the genetic trait, Diamond realized that a wider indexing project would be a boon for thousands of Jewish genealogists.
"I began to think, 'Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could do this for all of Poland?'" he recalls.
With the help of fellow genealogists Steven Zedeck of Nashua, N.H., and Michael Tobias of Glasgow, Scotland, he became coordinator of the Jewish Records Indexing Project (JRI) for Poland, which to date has produced an index of 1.8 million vital Jewish records from the 19th century.
The index is easily accessible and searchable on the Internet, where it is consulted by hundreds of researchers every day.
The project relies upon a widespread network of hundreds of volunteers whose efforts are coordinated largely over the Internet.
It also employs several Russian-born data-entry clerks in Warsaw. Facility with both Russian and Polish is essential for these workers because the record books were handwritten in Polish until 1868 and in Russian thereafter.
A former manufacturer of decorated ceilings and the president of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Montreal, Diamond estimates that roughly 20 percent of all available Polish Jewish records have been included in the JRI-Poland database so far.
It is the largest and perhaps the most impressive of about 60 indexing projects accessible via JewishGen, the Internet gateway to Jewish genealogy.
In its six-year existence, JewishGen has experienced explosive growth. The nonprofit communal organization maintains a Web site that is a focal point for daily discussion groups and many volunteer projects, including an effort to post a growing number of searchable databases to the net.
The Jewish Genealogical Family Finder (JGFF), a computerized listing of researchers' ancestral surnames and towns, offers a striking example of the phenomenal rise in popularity of Jewish genealogy in recent years.
In its first 14 years, the JGFF grew to include about 3,200 participants until it was taken over by JewishGen in 1996. Since then, an additional 60,000 people have contributed their research details.
"The number of people doing Jewish genealogy has unquestionably grown enormously," said Gary Mokotoff, head of the New Jersey-based Jewish genealogical publishing house, Avotaynu Inc.
Since the advent of the Internet, the annual gatherings of the genealogical community have swelled in size. Between 800 and 1,000 registrants are expected at the 22nd international conference on Jewish genealogy in Toronto from Aug. 4-9.
Diamond and Mokotoff are among a roster of international speakers slated to deliver more than 150 talks at the conference. Diamond is a possible recipient of an award, presented each year by the conference's host group, the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies.
The gamut of conference topics ranges from the latest developments in genetics and DNA research to the newest wrinkles in the age-old pursuit of tracing the lineages of King David and the medieval sage Rashi. Other topics include how to find records in many Jewish ancestral lands, how to trace Holocaust victims, how to get the best results from the Ellis Island database of passenger arrivals to New York, how to find cousins in Israel, and much more.
The conference also offers a beginners workshop, numerous meetings of special-interest groups, a vendors marketplace and nightly screenings of roots-related video documentaries.
Thanks to the advent of the Internet and the opening up of archives in Eastern Europe and other factors, there's never been a better time to be doing Jewish genealogy, according to Diamond.
"Everything used to be against us, with the whole process of writing letters and making expensive long-distance phone calls," he said. "Now it seems all the pins are falling into place."