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Jewish Journal

Getting Genealogy Help Off the Net

by Adam Wills

April 17, 2003 | 8:00 pm

Joanna Rubiner, a 33-year-old actress from Los Feliz, sits in front of a microfilm reader that is likely older than she is. With a turn of the hand crank, she slowly scrolls through page after page of a ship's manifest hoping to find the name of an elusive ancestor who immigrated to America.

Rubiner, who started collecting family stories at her grandfather's funeral in 1986, has been coming to the Mormon-run Family History Center for more than a decade to pore over records. The information she's seeking is not available online, and if it were she'd still want to track down the original document to confirm its accuracy.

"Sometimes I think a seance would be easier," Rubiner said, referring to the decidedly low-tech medium of microfilmed records.

With software packages like Family Tree Maker and the growing availability of genealogy databases online, family-tree research is being marketed to consumers as an easy, accessible hobby. According to a 2000 Maritz Research poll, nearly 60 percent of people surveyed expressed an interest in genealogy, a 15 percent increase from 1995. This growing interest has spawned the PBS series, "Ancestors," and the Museum of Tolerance's new exhibit "Finding Our Families, Finding Ourselves."

But the rose-colored picture sold to consumers of tracking down great-great-grandparents via the Internet in 30 minutes or less typically falls short. While the availability of records on the Internet is growing, public expectations still outstrip the reality of what's out there. Most databases have been rushed and are rife with errors, especially when it comes to records with Jewish names. The end result has been a boon for Jewish genealogical societies and online resources, which are increasingly called on to help novice genealogists navigate resources on and off the Internet.

Recently, the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation (www.ellisisland.org) joined with the Mormon Church to make available the passenger records of 22 million people who entered America through the Port of New York and Ellis Island from 1892-1924. According to JewishGen.org  editor Warren Blatt, the database has a 40-percent error rate.

"If you're a Mormon in Salt Lake City, you're not going to know how to translate the name Yitzhak," said Blatt, who will be speaking to the Jewish Genealogical Society of Los Angeles (JGSLA) about Jewish given names and JewishGen's databases on Monday, April 21 at the Skirball Cultural Center.

Blatt, 40, said that JewishGen has set up its own Ellis Island database -- one of 50 the nonprofit makes available to the public -- which takes into account spelling variations of Jewish names to help narrow a search.

"The Internet is a way to jump-start your research, but for serious research you need to consult the original documents," Blatt cautioned.

Cyndi Howells of CyndisList.com, an index to online genealogical resources, echoed Blatt's view. She said that the information entered into most Internet databases is about as accurate as a game of telephone.

"You should always be trying to get back to that original document. There's too much room for error in transcription," she said.

Tarzana residents Annette and Joe Corn recently joined JGSLA to get help researching their family tree. The 70-something couple received a copy of Family Tree Maker as a gift from a relative but has been unable to make headway with online research.

"I tried filling out as much as I could," said Joe Corn, who was at the Family History Center learning how to find relatives on the U.S. Census. "I've been frustrated with the results on the Internet."

The need to do research offline has led to a membership increase for groups like JGSLA, which has seen a 20 percent growth in the last few years.

"The person-to-person contact is invaluable to people," JGSLA President Sonia Hoffman said.

The society itself works directly with the Los Angeles Family History Center and helps augment the center's holdings by purchasing books and microfilmed records of interest to the Jewish community. But the group's alliance with the Mormon Church does make some members uncomfortable.

The Mormon Church, which requires its followers to research their own family trees and submit the names of non-Mormon ancestors for baptism by proxy, recently came under fire for posthumously baptizing Jews, especially Holocaust victims. Church leaders pledged to end the practice last December.

"Some people's attitudes are, 'What do we care?' Other people get offended," Hoffman said.

Hoffman added that JGSLA's relationship with the Mormon Church has been very good. When a Jewish name periodically appears in the church's online International Genealogical Index, she said that the society is able to get it removed.

For Rubiner, a five-year JGLSA member, the records offered by the society and the Family History Center are an invaluable resource. She said the details on the shipping manifest can tell her a lot about the relative she's researching, like how much money they were carrying at the time, who traveled with them, where they departed from and where they were going.

Researching one relative can take anywhere from hours to weeks, but the allure of discovering details about a person's life through vital records makes her regular trips to the center worth the effort.

"You get obsessive," Rubiner said. "It's never-ending."

Warren Blatt, editor-in-chief of JewishGen, will speak at the Skirball Cultural Center on Monday, April 21, at 6:30 p.m. For more information, visit www.jgsla.org .

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