How To Engage the Next Generation of Genealogists (JewishGen Projects - A Model for Student Involvement)

Posted by Nolan Altman

How are we going to get younger generations interested in genealogy? Where are the future genealogists going to come from? Is there a unique method that we can employ to share with younger generations the importance documenting our family histories?  How can we let them experience the satisfaction of helping others?

Whether it’s at Board meetings of my local Jewish genealogical society (JGSLI), the IAJGS umbrella organization Board, academic institutions or providers of genealogical information, such as JewishGen, conversations on ways to engage younger generations have not yielded the tangible results we all wish for. 

However, I recently had the opportunity to help design a very successful effort that engaged college students in a genealogical project, elicited very positive student responses and resulted in more than 4,000 new records for JewishGen’s JOWBR and Memorial Plaque databases.  I’d like to share this program with you in hopes that you may consider whether you could replicate the program in your local institutions.

I am currently JewishGen’s Vice President of Data Acquisition and coordinator for the JOWBR and Memorial Plaque databases.  I also serve on the State University of New York at Albany’s Center for Jewish Studies Advisory Board.  On one of my trips to Albany, I discussed with Interim Director Prof. Barry Trachtenberg how we might be able to craft a project that would give students hands-on experience with creation of historical indices and also benefit the greater Jewish genealogical community.  Having the students help to index and photograph three local cemeteries and catalogue memorial plaques from two local synagogues fit the bill exactly. 

Prior to the class starting their project, I was invited to give a general genealogical presentation to the community sponsored by SUNY Albany’s Center for Jewish Studies and the local Albany Jewish Federation.  We attracted over 80 people in a city that does not currently have a JGS.  This was a good entre into the community and also gave those students that attended a better understanding about genealogical research and family research.

The next day, I visited Prof. Trachtenberg’s class.  The course focused on local Jewish history and the genealogical component was one of three month-long sections. In the first, the students read several overviews of the history of Albany's Jewish community. The students were required to visit several local landmarks and become familiar with the neighborhoods and their history. They learned about settlement patterns (which helped us to understand where Jews buried their dead, and why they were organized the way they were--by occupation, synagogue, etc.) The second component was the genealogical one and the third was an Independent Research project by each student that would help them to understand a component of local Jewish life in detail. The class was also accompanied by a lecture series, “Jews Along the Hudson”.

I gave a presentation to the students on the genealogical value of Jewish cemetery records.  We explained the importance of Hebrew patronymics, how to read a Jewish headstone, and prepared them for the unique engravings and symbols they would find in their fieldwork.

The class was broken up into 9 teams of 3 for this one month project.  We weren’t sure how students would accept “cemetery work” and we had to be sensitive to particular restrictions and skills among the students.  For example, were there any Kohens in the class who could not visit cemeteries but could work on the memorial plaque projects?  Could each group include 1 student who was comfortable with transliterating Hebrew names and dates with some instruction?

Under Professor Trachtenberg’s supervision, the students began their fieldwork by photographing the headstones at the local cemeteries.  Professor Trachtenberg also received permission from 2 local synagogues to gain access to their memorial plaques or Yizkor cards so those teams could proceed with their indexing.  The students used the standard excel templates provided on the website for download.

Professor Trachtenberg taught the students the basic Hebrew numbering system and worked with those groups who had difficulty with the Hebrew. Using Dropbox, students were able to upload a test template of 10 entries that I could edit and make corrections. When completed, the class was responsible for adding more than 4,000 records to JOWBR’s 2011 year-end update and the inaugural roll-out of the Memorial Plaque database. They were also able to enter the first entries from Albany, NY into the database.

One of the criteria the professor and I spoke about was getting feedback from the students at the conclusion of their assignment.  I was somewhat surprised as to how many of them gained a sincere appreciation for the work they did and that they were responsible not just creating indices, but for memorializing lives that future generations could learn about. Compared to other school projects, they came away with a real sense of satisfaction for creating something that was useful and had some historical permanence to it. 

Here is a sample of some of the student responses:
This was more than a school project that we would be graded on. The information we would be collecting and analyzing was going to one day help those that wanted to know more about their family and their ancestors. G.O.

Genealogical research was never a field of study to which I paid much attention. I never thought of the importance of knowing about my own genealogical history, let alone that of others; however, after completing the readings and lectures about genealogy and the role it plays in history, I realize that it is important to do this type of work. R.S.

The efforts our class put in to carry out this project in a complete way has not only allowed us to grow and learn, but also serves a greater purpose by giving people who want to connect to their past, the opportunity to do so. J.S.

It is a great way to give back to the community and unlike other projects I’ve had to complete throughout my educational career, at no point did I feel as though it were a waste of time. There is a sense of satisfaction knowing that your efforts can affect others in a positive way by helping them find their family history. J.M.

Upon completing my genealogical project, I cannot deny that I was quite relieved. This project was one of the more time consuming projects I have been assigned at the University, but the thing that separated this time consuming project from the other ones was that I didn’t find myself rushing to finish in the end. I found that I truly wanted to complete this project in the most accurate and best way I could. The thought that the information I recorded could be of use to at least one person attempting to trace their history, gave me the desire to try my hardest. When you know that your work will be helpful to another, it gives you that extra drive do your best. Every time I would get frustrated with translating a tombstone and was just about ready to give up (which was quite often) I remembered that the tombstone wasn’t just a rock, it was a life.  M.L.

When I was growing up, my grandparents would tell me stories of when they were growing up and how they lived. They were able to tell me so much about their parents and showed me pictures of my great-grandparents. They even showed me the letters they wrote to each other before they got married. I realized that I am very lucky to be able to know the history behind my family. The genealogical project showed me that there are many people out there who do not always have someone there to tell him or her about their ancestry. Many people are essentially in the dark about who their grandparents are and it keeps getting darker the further they try to track their family. A.J.

Due to the success of this project, we have already talked about repeating it for other classes in the upcoming semesters. (Two students that took part in the project and presentation are currently designing genealogically related independent study projects.) The project worked well for this college class and I can imagine it could be replicated on other campuses with the right direction.  I would suggest considering other schools with Judaic Studies departments, history departments with Jewish studies courses or Hillel chapters. 

Although the cemetery work takes a certain amount of independent work, I think we should also consider high school aged students or younger that could donate time to work on their synagogue’s memorial plaque projects. I’ve already had a few students submit indexed sections of cemeteries for their bar / bat mitzvah projects.  And did you know that the Boy Scouts of America have a genealogy merit badge that I’ve had two individual earn by submitting cemetery photos and indices?

The above model combines hands-on project work with an opportunity to experience one aspect of genealogical research.  Reading the students’ comments, it is clear that they understood the importance of what they were doing and developed an appreciation for genealogy at a young age.  Whether they become active or not the greater genealogical community, the exposure they received to the study of genealogy resulted in a positive experience that they may choose to build upon in the future.  And isn’t that the first step towards what we really want to achieve?

My sincerest thanks to Professor Barry Trachtenberg and his students in his fall 2011 course: American Jewish Experience at the University at Albany, State University of New York. This article originally appeared in the Spring 2012 edition of AVOTAYNU

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