Detectives at the IAJGS Conference

From the Forward:
The 1,000 people who came from all over to the International Conference on Jewish Genealogy are bubbes and mommies, fathers and sons, and professionals and retirees, and besides being Jewish, they all have one thing in common.

They are detectives.

Some, like Ann Francesconi, of Tavares, Fla., have been on the trail of their extended family’s past, as she said, “pretty much all my life.” Francesconi’s most recent discovery was the passenger manifest that pinpointed her son-in-law’s Italian roots. “And when I found it, I went: Yes! Yes!” she said, reliving the wow moment of even the smallest find that can lead to the next, larger discovery and, in turn, to sites that were towns before the Holocaust, or to places around the world where newly discovered family members live.
“Genealogists never die,” declared the slogan on the T-shirt she was wearing. “They just lose their census.”

Others, like Philadelphia freelance writer Stacia Friedman, have been tracing their roots for little more than a year. Friedman struck gold on her first trip to Philadelphia’s National Archives office when curiosity about her paternal grandmother led her to a document that listed the place where her great-uncle was born. “There are some moving borders; it might have been in Ukraine one day and Russia the next,” she said. No matter. The information placed a part of her family in a locale two generations back, and gave her more of a perspective. In little time, Friedman was hooked and volunteering at the conference.

“We all came from somewhere,” said Philadelphia-based author Estelle Carpey, one of the luncheon speakers at the conference that began August 2 and ends August 7. Her forthcoming book, “A Piece of Heart,” will tell the story of an aunt lost to the family for decades, then discovered. “We all have a history. We have a culture. What your family went through, you have to put in the context of what the world was like at the time.”

Those stories — and certainly that context — have drawn more people of many ethnic groups to genealogy. They’re searching for their pasts in a present that holds more opportunity, with new digital equipment and databases and, for those of Eastern European descent, more archives opening across the ocean as governments liberalize access.

“This is an attempt to connect with something larger than yourself,” said David Mink, a Philadelphia restaurateur and international conference co-chair who wanted to give his children a sense of their ancestry, and then began researching his family four years ago. “I felt a desire to give the people not just names, but personalities,” he said. “We are the results of everything that preceded us, I believe. There’s probably a lot of my grandparents in me.”

This was the 29th conference, which is now sponsored each year by the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies, a confederation of about 75 local societies around the world, and by the host society — in this case, the Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Philadelphia. The convention tends to draw largely from the region where it is held, and throws a spotlight on that locale’s Jewish history. This year, programming about Philadelphia’s Jewish community, among the nation’s oldest, was abundant.

But there was also, it seemed, something for everyone, with more than 100 presenters, and stations that included information on DNA testing, databases, document searching and the Red Star Line that sailed immigrants to Philadelphia and New York from Antwerp for 61 years, plus document translators and the requisite jewelry and handicrafts tables. (FORWARD)

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