It’s a Mitzvah of Memory
By Sallyann Amdur Sack
Vero Beach, FL: Sometimes the shortest path to a goal is via a detour. In Jewish genealogy, if your goal is to build a tree of direct ancestors as far back as possible, the best way to maximize your chances is to go to the side, to build your tree as wide as possible. That is, learn as much as you can about distant cousins, those who are second, third, fourth and more. Why? Because each of those cousins share a common ancestor with you—one further back in time. As you learn the name of that ancestor, you have moved back in time one more generation.
In his ground-breaking book, Finding Our Fathers, pioneer Jewish genealogy Dan Rottenberg discusses the process this way:
“…I finally found the grave of Rifka Klein. So what? After all, Rifka was not a direct ancestor of mine; she was merely a sister of my great-grandmother. Was it so important to find her grave?
As a matter of fact, it was. In the jigsaw-puzzle world of genealogy, even the most seemingly obscure fact can be important and finding Rifka’s grave was a major element in my discovery of the grave of Rifka’s mother, my great-great-grandmother Lena Klein, the widow of Morris David Klein, and that led to my discovery of the names of her parent—my great-great-great-grandparents—thus adding one more generation to my family tree” – Dan Rottenberg
According to Helen Gardner, a committee member of the Australian Jewish Genealogical Society Victoria (AJGS(Vic)) based in Melbourne, Australia), her country has the world’s largest per capita Holocaust survivor community, second only to that of Israel. As such, Gardner knows that chances are good for Jewish genealogists everywhere to find at least one distant cousin “down under.”
I found mine, Mike Ross, in Perth. Joining forces, enabled me to trace my Amdur line back to the first third of the 18th century without a missing generation. This despite the fact that when I started, my own father did not even know the name of his Amdur grandfather.
Gardner listened to Marlis Humphrey describe L’Dor V’Dor Foundation’s (LDVDF) Documentation of Jewish Records Worldwide (DoJR) project at the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (IAJGS) virtual conference in 2020 and had an insight. “Most Jewish genealogists don’t know much about the Australian Jewish community. I realized that the DoJR project to build JCat (the catalog which will ultimately contain all the DoJR data) is a way to bring attention to our resources,” Gardner explains, and she set about to do just that and further enable researchers worldwide to trace their Jewish Australian ancestors.
“Most Jewish genealogists don’t know much about the Australian Jewish community. I realized that the DoJR project to build JCat is a way to bring attention to our resources.” – Helen Gardner, Project Lead
She approached AJGS(Vic) which agreed to take on DoJR as a project, making it the first IAJGS member society to do so. It was also the IAJGS that launched and incubated the DoJR project. The Victorian Society provided the initial financial support, and committee members Liz James and Bubbles Segal joined Gardner in documenting all the records held by AJGS(Vic) and the Melbourne branch of the Australian Jewish Historical Society (AJHS Vic).
A major find in this phase of the project was the discovery of several thousand applications from Russian Jews (1991—95) for admission to Australia, filled with detailed genealogically valuable information. Many applicants were admitted, but others went elsewhere, primarily the US or Israel. AJGS(Vic) president Alan Jankie gave a generous personal donation to pay for scanning of this collection, which now has been digitized. About 520 of the applications include documents in Russian or Lithuanian which are currently being translated. Translated birth certificates sometimes list parents other and those on the application form, indicating a second unnamed marriage providing additional genealogical information.
The database will be sent to Sydney and posted on its AJHS website. The record collection has been entered into JCat and is a prime example of how JCat will assemble information, sometimes from unexpected locations and scattered all over the world.
Because the project is expanding rapidly and requires support beyond the capacity of AJGS(Vic), Gardner negotiated a partnership with B’nai B’rith Victoria (BB(Vic)) that has resulted in an expanded mission aimed at creating a master list of all archival records held by Melbourne’s Jewish communal organizations, documenting a description of the records, a listing of types of available information and where they are held. Given the variety of information, creation of the master list requires the expertise of professional archivists. Sabrina Elias, Senior Archivist Australian Jewish Historical Society – AJHS, and interns under her direction have offered their expertise in the initial curating, organizing, ingesting, and protecting archival materials. Recently, Elias visited Melbourne where she made an initial examination and cataloguing of B’nai B’rith’s 50 archival boxes. She also arranged for three Melbourne-based archive interns to process the data in more detail over the next few months.
B’nai B’rith notes that it “understands the importance of history and legacy” and collectively, the archival records of Jewish community organizations create a compilation of Melbourne’s Jewish community history. They need to be archived and catalogued NOW, before they are thrown out.
“Collectively, the archival records of Jewish community organisations create a compilation of Melbourne’s Jewish community history. They need to be archived and catalogued NOW, before they are thrown out.
Join us and keep Jewish memories alive!” – B’nai B’rith Victoria
To reflect this expanded effort, the project has been renamed the B’nai B’rith Community History Project. (CHP). As the name indicates, the scope of the project is broader than genealogical research alone. The archived material also will provide information for those researching Jewish community politics, economics, events, and other matters of interest.
B’nai B’rith is providing office space; an email address; and a website presence to promote the project, recruit additional volunteers, a “donate” button tied to DoJR; and staff assistance in project management.
The combined DoJR-B’nai B’rith partnership is reaching out to additional Jewish groups in Sydney as well as Melbourne. The Jewish Genealogical Society in Sydney recently merged with the local Jewish Historical Society and much of its archival material has been digitized.
Locally, the Yiddish-based organization Kadimah currently is reorganizing its records and has agreed to provide the CHP with a list of record sets it holds. Ellana Aarons, Chief Executive Officers of BB(Vic) has offered to approach the Jewish Community Council of Victoria (JCCV), the primary representative body for Victorian Jewry, to discuss its participation in the project. In addition, Aarons has offered to send an introductory email letter to every one of the 52 Jewish organizations on the JCCV community list.
The team recently also attended a series of three sessions on archiving led by Stefanie Halpern from YIVO, held at the Monash Centre for Jewish Civilization (ACJC). Professor David Slucki of ACJC, expressing interest in the project suggested, among other things, that CHP form a consortium of about five organizations to propose a pilot project to one of the prominent Melbourne Jewish Philanthropic organizations, seeking funding for a dedicated project archivist.
Slucki also mentioned the organization Catchafire, as a possible source of professional assistance on various aspects of the project sometime in the future. Given the war in Israel today, however, archiving is not topmost on anyone’s mind at the moment. Fundraising for an archiving project is not a priority right now, so the project is temporarily on hold.
Marlis Humphrey, CEO of the L’Dor V’Dor Foundation, the non-profit organization formed to take the DoJR project forward and build JCat, underscores the importance of the multi-organization collaboration discovering and bringing into the light, Jewish documentary heritage. Humphrey adds that
“Gardner’s team with fellow collaborators B’nai B’rith and AJHS are doing a great mitzvah to discover and preserve the memories of our Jewish ancestors and their lives in Victoria. They are scouting their own backyard for records to share with researchers throughout the world so they can learn who came before them and discover their extended families.” – Marlis Humphrey, CEO LDVDF
About L’Dor V’Dor Foundation
The L’Dor V’Dor Foundation (LDVDF) is advancing ancestral discovery for anyone with interest in Jewish family history and heritage. LDVDF is rescuing lost Jewish heritage through its Documentation of Jewish Records Worldwide (DoJR) project. DoJR’s goal is to discover every existing document of every Jew who ever lived – Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Mizrahi, Crypto, Rabbinic and more – in a massive, free, online searchable catalogue called JCat.
About the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies
The International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (IAJGS) is an organization of organizations formed in 1988 to provide a common voice for issues of significance to its members, to advance genealogical avocation, and to coordinate items such as the annual International Conference on Jewish Genealogy.
About the Australian Jewish Genealical Society (Victoria)
The Australian Jewish Genealogical Society (Victoria) is a non-profit organisation dedicated to collecting, preserving and disseminating genealogical information, teaching research techniques and offering databases to people interested in researching Jewish ancestry.
About the B’nai B’rith Victoria
B’nai B’rith in Victoria helps to strengthen Jewish life, reinforcing the community’s sense of Jewish identity, and reflecting its shared humanitarian principles, cultural heritage and legacy of innovation through membership, projects, programs and events.
About the Australian Jewish Historical Society
The Australian Jewish Historical Society (AJHS) is dedicated to promoting the study of Jewry in Australia from 1788. AJHS has sought to compile and make available unique and authentic records relating to the Jewish people in Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands via the acquisition and preservation of historically significant documents and materials.