JewishGen Projects: A Model for Student Involvement

by Nolan Altman

Is it possible to interest younger generations in genealogy? Or is genealogy basically an interest of older people? In October 2011, I helped design a successful genealogical project for college students. I have no doubt that it can be replicated in other institutions.

I serve on the advisory board for the Center for Jewish Studies, State University of New York (SUNY) at Albany. I also serve as JewishGen’s vice-president for data acquisition and coordinator of its Jewish Online Worldwide Burial Registry (JOWBR) and memorial plaque databases. During a visit to Albany, Professor Barry Trachtenberg, interim director of the Jewish Studies Center, and I discussed how we might craft a project to give students hands-on experience with creation of historical indexes and benefit the greater Jewish genealogical community at the same time. We decided to have students help index and photograph tombstones in three local Jewish cemeteries and catalogue memorial plaques from two local synagogues; this fit the bill exactly.

Before the class started the 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 more than 80 people in a city that currently does not have a Jewish genealogy society. This helped those students who attended the talk better understand genealogical and family history research.

The next day, I visited Professor Trachtenberg’s class, a course on local Jewish history. The genealogical component was one of three month-long sections. In the first segment, the students read several overviews of the history of Albany’s Jewish community, and 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 burial sites were organized the way they were—by occupation, synagogue and so forth). The second component covered the genealogical content, and the third segment required an independent research project in which each student undertook an effort that would help them to understand a component of local Jewish life in detail. The class was also accompanied by a lecture series entitled “Jews Along the Hudson.”

I spoke to the students on the genealogical value of Jewish cemetery records and the importance of Hebrew patronymics. I explained how to read a Jewish tombstone and prepared them for the unique engravings and symbols they would find in their fieldwork. The class divided into nine teams of three each for this month-long project. We were not sure how students would accept “cemetery work,” and we tried 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 by Jewish law but could work on the memorial plaque projects? We tried to be sure that each group included at least one student who was comfortable transliterating Hebrew names and dates after we provided some instruction.

Under Professor Trachtenberg’s supervision, the students began their fieldwork by photographing all the headstones at the local cemeteries. Professor Trachtenberg also received permission from two local synagogues to gain access to their memorial plaques or yizkor cards to enable those teams to proceed with their indexing. Yizkor (remembrance) cards and memorial plaques include much the same information as tombstones: English name, date of death and, in many cases, the Hebrew patronymic name that ties two generations together. The students used the standard Excel templates provided on the JOWBR 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, a free third party file sharing program, students were able to upload a test template of 10 entries that I could edit and correct if needed. When completed, the class had added more than 4,000 records to the JOWBR database and the Memorial Plaque database. (Announced at the Washington, DC, IAJGS conference in August 2011, JewishGen’s Memorial Plaque Project will go online in the first quarter of 2012.)

We designed the project to include feedback from the students at the conclusion of the assignment. Gratifyingly, many seemed to gain a sincere appreciation for the work they did and for the fact that they were responsible not just for creating indexes, but for memorializing lives about which future generations could learn something. They felt satisfaction at creating something that was useful and hadsome historical permanence. Here is a sample of some 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 was 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 timeconsuming 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 to 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 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.

Pleased with the success of the project, Professor Trachtenberg and I already have talked about repeating it for other classes in the future. (Two students who participated in the project and presentation currently are designing genealogically related independent study projects.) The project worked well for this college class, and I imagine it could be replicated on other campuses. The project combined 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 in 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.

Nolan Altman is JewishGen’s vice-president for data acquisition and coordinates its JOWBR, Holocaust and Memorial Plaque databases. He is president of the Jewish Genealogy Society of Long Island and serves on the Board of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (IAJGS) where he pursues the organization’s Youth Initiative program.


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