A (family) tree grows in Philly
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A (family) tree grows in Philly

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Gary Mokotoff

Genealogists from around the world will converge on Philadelphia next month for the 29th International Conference on Jewish Genealogy, a convention on the latest techniques in genealogical research and networking, or as one local researcher put it, “my Christmas.”

Gary Mokotoff, publisher of Avotaynu, The International Review of Jewish Genealogy in Bergenfield, has attended almost every conference since its inception in 1980. This year’s event will take place Aug. 1 to 7 at the Sheraton Philadelphia City Center Hotel. Last year’s confab drew about 800 people and organizers expect at least that number next month.

“To me, the most important thing is the networking that goes on,” Mokotoff said. “You meet people from elsewhere so you can discuss your personal research and what they’re doing.”

Participants’ nametags, he noted, include the names of people and towns the genealogists are researching, to help people make connections.

Jewish genealogy is attracting a wider audience these days, according to David Mink, co-chair of this year’s conference and a member of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Philadelphia. An increasing number of baby boomers are beginning their retirements and devoting more time to researching their family trees, he said. Also, new genealogy social networks are attracting younger researchers.

“We’ve found in our local society that we’ve attracted a group of people in their 30s and early 40s who have young families and want to connect with their heritage,” he said, “and not necessarily through a synagogue or a religious way but through a cultural way.”

The last time the conference was held in Philadelphia was 1989. Since then it has grown to a budget of $250,000 and attracts people from Australia, South America, and Europe.

“This has become the premier event of Jewish genealogy,” Mink said.

Programs include panels exploring research techniques for birth and death records in Poland and the former Soviet Union, as well as a number of panels on the Jewish histories of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and southern New Jersey. Several special interest groups, for those researching specific regions such as Latvia or Belarus, will meet as well. Jewish history expert Jonathan Sarna is scheduled to lecture on Jewish settlement patterns, explaining how Jews ended up where they did in America. Other panels include “Bagels & Grits: How Jews Made a Home in the U.S. South,” “Not Everyone Lived in New York: Settlement in the Midwest,” and “Within and Beyond the Pale: Jews in the Russian Empire.”

The keynote speaker, French priest Father Patrick Desbois, will discuss “The Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest’s Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 million Jews,” which is also the title of his recently published book. In past years, the conference has invited archivists from Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania, primarily focusing on Eastern Europe. The head archivist from Romania had also been invited this year but had to cancel, Mokotoff said.

This year’s conference will also offer attendees free access to multiple genealogical Web sites that typically charge for their services. These Web sites have played a major role in making genealogical research more accessible to the layperson, according to Mokotoff.

“The magic word is Internet,” he said. “Things that in the 1980s took me months to do and involved half a day of my time … I can now use the Internet to get census records, references to births and deaths….”

Jews have generally thought themselves incapable of researching their family histories, Mokotoff said. He pointed to what he called popular myths of records destroyed in the Holocaust and changed names at Ellis Island as roadblocks for people conducting their own research.

“These myths are all dispelled now because of the access to information on the Internet,” he said. “I just found out Latvia put online birth and death records of Jews of the 19th century. Now because of the Internet you just go online and you can do your own research.”

For more information on the conference, visit www.philly2009.org.

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