When Mikhail Kivovich came to America from Belorussia in 1991, he knew he had relatives who had arrived here many decades earlier. But until he attended the recent reunion of the Israel Cantor Family Society, he had no idea how many. Or how far back they went.
It was the print-out of the family tree that stretched horizontally across a long wall in a large room at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in the Connecticut Berkshires that stunned him. The family’s earliest member in America dated back to 1778.
“I almost cried,” said Kivovich, who is now a programmer in Chicago. He described meeting with his extended family as “one of my best moments in America.”
At the society’s 100th anniversary meeting, held August 23 to August 25, Kivovich was far from alone. Dan Cantor, the executive director of New York’s Working Families Party, could be seen at one point walking about the retreat grounds with four young members of the extended Cantor clan trailing behind him like confident, intelligent ducklings as he talked about how rare it was in America not only to know your 5th cousins, but to actually like them.
Founded in 1913 by Israel Aaron Cantor (Kantrowitz before he immigrated from Minsk), the Israel Cantor Family Society today numbers around 100 members, 64 of whom attended the 100th anniversary meeting. The society claims to be one of the oldest still-active landsmanschaften, or immigrant benevolent associations, in New York State.
Jewish immigrants to America formed landsmanschaften as burial or mutual aid societies. Membership was based on shtetl of origin, political ideology, or, in the case of the Israel Cantor Family Society, familial ties. Landsmanshaften dispatched much-needed aid to Europe during World War I, then mostly declined despite a short revival in the immediate aftermath of World War II. But the Israel Cantor Family Society is still thriving. It holds regular meetings twice a year, and larger gatherings every five years. The group’s main business function is maintaining plots in two cemeteries in New York and New Jersey. But it also operates as an unusually regulated, recurring family reunion.