A Report From the Jewish Genealogists’ Summer Camp

The Author of ‘The Family’ Heads to Utah

They Are Family: Researching his genealogy for his book, ‘The Family,’ David Laskin learned of his Vilna ancestors, seen here circa 1933.
Courtesy of david laskin
They Are Family: Researching his genealogy for his book, ‘The Family,’ David Laskin learned of his Vilna ancestors, seen here circa 1933.

By David Laskin

Published August 25, 2014.

As a latecomer and a relative newbie in Jewish genealogy, I have to admit I was a little apprehensive this July as I walked into the lobby of the Hilton Salt Lake City Center where the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies was holding its 34th annual conference. This was the tribe’s gathering of the tribes, the big powwow for the umbrella organization that oversees 74 Jewish genealogical groups around the world.

Though I had devoted a good part of the last three years to researching and telling my own family’s story, I really had no idea what to expect from a Jewish genealogical conference. Banks of computers occupied round the clock by googly-eyed family seekers? Tips on deciphering Hebrew headstones? A road map for navigating the labyrinth of JewishGen? Lively discussion and debate on Jewish history, the crisis in Gaza, the Ashkenazi-Sephardi divide? Passion, obsession, frustration, jubilation?

I found all of the above at the IAJGS conference — along with a hearty welcome. “Generosity is at the heart of this enterprise,” Warren Blatt, managing director of JewishGen, told me. “Sharing is essential to JewishGen and the whole Jewish genealogical community.” Based on four and a half action-packed days in Salt Lake City, I can add my heartfelt “amen.” What really motivates Jewish genealogists, like all genealogists, is the burning desire to discover as much as they can about as many ancestors as possible. But the IAJGS conference made it abundantly clear that in the pursuit of their ancestors, Jewish genealogists train their laser-like research skills on every aspect of our people’s culture and history.

Jewish genealogy starts with great-grandmother Chana from Chelm and ends with a sense of radiant awe at the diversity, tenacity, global dispersion and ingenuity of the people of the book (though these days the book is more likely to be a tablet, laptop, cell phone or, when all else fails, roll of microfilm).

My conference got off to an auspicious start. At the airport in Salt Lake City (chosen as the conference location because of the huge Family History Library run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, located just a couple of blocks from the hotel), I ran into an acquaintance from Seattle’s Yiddish Group and we shared a van to the hotel. In the lobby, I bumped into my second cousin’s wife’s first cousin (we genealogists have these things sorted out). Connecting and networking with near and distant kin and friends old and new, I discovered, was a big part of the attraction of the conference for many participants.

“These conferences are like summer camp for genealogists — or like going to one of those Jewish summer resorts where the same families return year after year,” Pamela Weisberger, a Los Angeles-based professional genealogist and president of Gesher Galicia and program chair of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Los Angeles, told me later. By the end of my four days at the weeklong conference, I definitely felt like a member of this extended family — a kind of doddering uncle on whom the rest of the mishpokhe smiled with benevolent toleration.

Though this was one of the smaller recent conferences — co-chair Ken Bravo estimated attendance at 500 to 600 (with an additional 250 streaming the conference through their home computers), about half of the attendance at last year’s Boston conference — it was more focused thematically than past gatherings. To mark the centennial of the start of World War I, several presenters examined the Jewish experience of the war. (Full disclosure: I delivered the conference keynote address, drawing on research I did for my two recent books, “The Family: A Journey into the Heart of the 20th Century” and “The Long Way Home: An American Journey From Ellis Island to the Great War,” to explore how the war marked the great divide between Jewish families in Europe and the United States).

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