Jewish Genealogists: Funding Needed to Save Family Records

Jewish genealogists are appealing to federations and philanthropists across North America to devote more financial resources to genealogical causes to preserve old and disintegrating records.

The appeal was made during a panel discussion at the 15th annual Summer Seminar on Jewish Genealogy that was recently held here.

The three panel members — a genealogist, an archivist and a communal official — estimated that between 5 percent and 50 percent of North American Jews are engaged in family tree research.

But they differed over the significance of genealogy to Jewish continuity and therefore the need for federations to fund genealogical research projects.

Gary Mokotoff, former president of the Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies and publisher of the genealogical journal Avotaynu, said genealogy is essential to Jewish continuity since it enables researchers, who number in the hundreds of thousands, to recognize their connection to the Jewish people.

Genealogy “is capable of stemming the tide of Jewish assimilation and should be of great interest to philanthropists,” he said. “Isn’t Jewish continuity a goal of Jewish philanthropy?”

Mokotoff said Jewish genealogists want funds not for themselves but to rescue irreplaceable Jewish records that are disintegrating in archives around the world.

“We must spend more money to preserve Jewish history,” he said. At the same time, he called upon genealogists to give more money and time as volunteers towards important genealogical causes.

The other two panelists, however, maintained there was little need for communal resources to be allocated for genealogy.

For genealogists to ask Jewish federations to fund their various projects would be “like turning to big government for a bailout,” said Michael Feldberg, executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society in Waltham, Mass.

Jewish continuity “is a room with many doors, the greatest of which is probably synagogue membership,” and not historical family research, he said.

Michael Bohnen, a Boston-area lawyer and past chairman of Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, said “passing on our family history to our children doesn’t take communal funding. It’s more important that we send our children to Hebrew day schools.”

Several audience members participated in the discussion. Robert Weiss, president of the Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies, noted that schoolchildren in Israel, “where Jewish continuity should not be a problem,” are obliged to study Jewish genealogy in the 7th and 10th grades in order for them to understand their connections to 17th century shtetls in Europe.

Yale Reisner, director of the Lauder Foundation Genealogy Project of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw and a former federation official, acknowledged that communal officials face tough decisions when allocating limited resources to increasing and competing needs.

“The fact is there is only a limited amount of money, and the poor and the sick are part of that. It’s a hard decision to make. It’s triage,” Reisner said.

Archivists also face tough choices, Reisner said, citing the Jewish Historical Institute’s need for an elevator to give handicapped people access to archival records.

“Do we want to preserve Schindler’s List or do we want to buy a Schindler Lift?” he asked. “That’s a question that must be answered.”

Urging Jewish genealogists to become more active in rescuing endangered records, Reisner cited what he called Reisner’s Law of the Conservation of Matter: “If it matters to you, conserve it.”

“The Nazis tried so hard to wipe us out but they didn’t do it,” he said. “What a tragedy it would be if we allowed the memory to be wiped out.”

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