"I don't believe one person can make a difference, so I am not going to do…….!" We have heard this asserted numerous times. Is it the truth or just an excuse, a cop-out?
I believe in all certitude that one person can make a difference, and I want to describe two instances in which this has happened with volunteers for JewishGen's Online Worldwide Burial Registry (JOWBR).
Over a year ago I was invited to give a talk on JewishGen to a synagogue in Indianapolis, IN. My talk focused on various JewishGen programs but mostly on JOWBR. The group, with a number of Holocaust survivors interested in genealogical databases, listened intently and I was interrupted often with excellent questions, some of them quite emotional. The attendees were obviously eager to learn more about genealogy and resources on JewishGen. When I started to talk about JOWBR and about my vision of how a synagogue or a whole town, with multi-generational participants, could be involved in cataloging Jewish cemeteries and photographing matzevot, the air became electric. Soon everyone was talking and asking questions and sharing ideas about organizing all the synagogues to help. It became apparent that all were looking to one person, Gloria Green, also known as GG, who seemed to have the organizational and interpersonal skills and the respect of the attendees to pull off a city-wide effort of the Jewish community. With no hesitation she agreed to be the liaison and started organizing committees on the spot.
This Spring she organized teams—often composed of parents and their children—to visit seven of the eight Jewish cemeteries, some no longer in use—to photograph the matzevot. Others entered the data from the inscriptions into JOWBR spreadsheets. The eighth cemetery, a Sephardic cemetery, had already been photographed and data put online.
In the previous winter months, volunteers had gone to the mortuary that performs most of the Jewish burials in Indianapolis to photocopy their burial records. These records were used to cross-check burials against the actual matzevot and the data from these burial records were added to spreadsheets for ease of search.
Gloria has told me that she wishes she could do this full-time. [I wish she could, too.] Her husband says that organizing the JOWBR project has given her a burst of energy and excitement and renewed commitment to Jewish organizational life.
Last weekend Gloria emailed me about a situation which showed her first-hand the value of JOWBR. One of her volunteer photographers and her daughter had spent a Sunday afternoon digitally photographing a cemetery. When she sent the photos to GG, she asked whether GG had already entered the data for cemetery X where one of her grandfathers was buried. GG said this man was not listed in that cemetery but he was listed in another cemetery and she would send her the photo of the matzeva (tombstone). There were protestations that this could not be so, but GG sent her the photo and the burial record, with the exact location of the grave.
As GG noted in her email to me, this person could have been walking all over the wrong cemetery looking for her relative and becoming frantic when she couldn't find the grave. Now, with a quick search of JOWBR, she will have complete information on the exact location of the grave and a digital image of the tombstone. About 6,000 burial records from Indianapolis and almost the same number of tombstone images will soon be uploaded to JOWBR.
The second example of a volunteer who made a difference is that of Terry Lasky, who had taken it upon himself to index all the cemeteries in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico and Manitoba, He was doing such a magnificent job that I asked him if we could talk on the phone about his taking on more states, using the model he had developed.
It isn't always that a well-organized and committed volunteer with enormous organizational talents shows up, and such persons have to be given additional responsibilities to keep them interested. He agreed eagerly and then emailed me about the states he would attack and how he would do this. Currently, Terry is coordinating the indexing of Jewish burial records in Nebraska, Oklahoma, Alaska (one small cemetery),Fargo, North Dakota, and one cemetery in Moldova. He is willing to do more, but needs a brief rest as he has just coordinated the raising of funds to photograph all the tombstones in Orhei, Moldova. He has received the photographs and now the translation of the inscriptions will be underway. When all this work on U.S. and Moldovan cemeteries is completed, Terry will have organized the addition of 60,000 burial records and 30,000 photographs to JOWBR!
There are many other individuals who have been responsible for contributions of large numbers of burial records and we will recognize them in subsequent blog posts.
I can never again hear that "one person can't make a difference" without disputing that assertion. JewishGen in particular and Jewish genealogy in general are enriched by these dedicated volunteers who motivate and organize others to take part in important projects vital to preserving our Jewish heritage.
If you have any ideas, or would like to volunteer, please post a comment in the "comments" section below. We are looking forward to hearing from you!