The case of the family tree
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The case of the family tree

Local rabbi solves genealogical mystery

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Rabbi Benjamin Shull and his family tree.

Move over Sherlock Holmes. There’s some pretty good detective work going on right here in Bergen County.

Putting together clues and puzzle-like pieces of information, Rabbi Benjamin Shull has solved what he jokingly refers to as his “semi-obsession” – the search for more branches on his family tree.

In the process, he has discovered previously unknown relatives, uncovered a direct link to a renowned Lithuanian rabbi and Musar activist, and come into possession of a beautiful, illuminated honest-to-goodness family tree.

Rabbi Shull, the religious leader of Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake, has written a memoir, “Uprooted,” detailing his journey.

His story begins in the early 1990s, at the cemetery in Philadelphia where his father’s family is buried.

“I was looking at the headstones of various relatives,” Rabbi Shull said. “I saw that on the stone of my father’s grandmother, Shayna, it said, ‘the daughter of HaRav Gaon Hillel.’ It sounded like someone of renown, but no one had ever mentioned it.” Hillel, he said, is his father’s middle name.

“At that point, there were two possible directions to go in – find out more about my great-grandmother’s history, and look up more information on Rabbi Hillel.”

Rabbi Shull already owned a book about the Lithuanian Jewish community, providing a history, town by town, of former residents.

“I looked up Ponevitch, my father’s family’s hometown, and it listed a Rabbi Hillel Mileikovsky who served the town in the 1860s and the 1870s,” he said. “It seemed to fit with my great-grandmother’s dates. She would have been a teenager then.”

That was a good lead, he said. A good possibility. So he started searching further to find out if the rabbi had any children – especially a child named Shayna.

“The Internet was becoming more popular and accessible by the late ’90s,” he said. “I found information on various Jewish websites, but none of them had a listing of his children. Though I sensed it was the same person, it was a bit of a dead end.”

Then he found another piece of the puzzle – a letter written by Hillel himself.

“It was written in 1899 and was in an old Mahzor that my aunt had taken from a family library. The letter mentioned the date, it was after Rosh Hashanah, and it asked the recipient what he was doing for a living. It became obvious that it was sent from Europe to Philadelphia. My father’s family had come here in 1897.”

Significantly, although it was hard to decipher, the salutation in the letter included the town, Amstislav, where Hillel Mileikovsky served as head rabbi until his death in 1899.

“I was 99 percent sure that this was Mileikovsky,” Rabbi Shull said. “But I still didn’t have the final link.”

That final connection was to come soon after, from a small notice on the Internet.

“It was like a detective story,” he said. “Every family history is like that – clues and pieces of information.”

Last February, searching the web once again, Rabbi Shull found a brief item noting that a family tree would be up for auction. The article said that Mileikovsky, a prominent rabbi, was among those featured in the artwork.

“I didn’t know if Shayna was on the tree, and the digital image was hard to see,” Rabbi Shull said. “I followed up to see who was selling it, and it was a Jewish antiques dealer named Jonathan Greenstein in Cedarhurst” on Long Island. “I went out there to his store and the proprietor pointed out the tree. I saw that Hillel had a large branch with a red ruby, as if he were the gemstone of the family. He was obviously appreciated by the person who created the tree.”

But even more exciting, one of the branches was Shayna.

“It was the direct link I was looking for,” Rabbi Shull said. “I was looking for a tree and found it on a tree.”

“It was very exciting to find the connection,” he said, noting that among the 150 or so people included on the tree was his great-grandfather, Avraham Michel Shull, identified as “the Rabbi of Philadelphia.” Equally thrilling was the notion that each of the people listed were either blood relatives or in-laws.

At the bottom of the tree is a picture of a man and an inscription in German noting that someone named Joseph Judey had given the tree to his son on his 40th birthday. Figuring that Judey had created the tree, Rabbi Shull returned to the Internet, finding information about Judey from the Leo Baeck Institute, a New York-based research center devoted to German Jewish history.

“There was a file there with a picture of him with one of his sons,” Rabbi Shull said. “And one of the entries in the table of contents was ‘family tree.'”

The file noted that while some of Judey’s descendants were killed during World War II, others had survived. Among them was an Irene Kaminsky, born in 1945 in New York City.

“I looked her up,” Rabbi Shull said, noting that while he found several people with that name, he focused on the one woman old enough to fit the profile. As it turned out, she was his fifth cousin.

“We met for coffee in New York City,” he said. “She remembers seeing the tree in her uncle’s study. She knew it was important but she didn’t know Hebrew so she couldn’t decipher it. It’s not clear how it left her uncle’s house and wound up being sold on eBay, where Greenstein had found it.”

As he understands it, the path – which ultimately ended at eBay – ran (roughly) from Europe to Philadelphia, from an estate sale to a flea market, from the sister of columnist Frank Rich to the Smithsonian. While Mr. Greenstein originally had hoped to get $15,000 for the tree at auction – he had bought it himself for $600 – he was unable to sell it for that price. Ultimately, Rabbi Shull, along with many of his close relatives, bought it, for $4,000.

The rabbi-detective later met another descendant of Judey, giving her copies of the tree for herself and her adult children. She turned out to be a fourth cousin.

“It was a nice get-together,” he said.

He and Ms. Kaminsky also participated in an interview Mr. Greenstein conducted “for his television program on the Jewish channel. It was an episode like ‘Antiques Roadshow,’ talking to people about various Judaic objects. It was filmed last summer but will come out in a few months.”

Rabbi Shull said that an interesting byproduct of his finding new relatives is that “since I’ve been lucky enough to study our tradition, I can explain to them what our heritage is, what our family history is, which they didn’t know. I could translate what’s on the tree.” This was particularly meaningful to Ms. Kaminsky, he said. Because much of her extended family had been killed during the Holocaust, she has always missed a sense of rootedness.

Another interesting finding – discovered among the thousands of Jewish books Chabad has put online – was a biography of Mileikovsky, “Zichron Hillel,” written in 1901.

“It was written in Hebrew by a student of Mileikovsky,” Rabbi Shull said. From this, he learned that his illustrious ancestor was a colleague of Israel Salanter, founder of the Musar movement.

“He worked with Salanter. He was considered a ‘Musarnik,'” Rabbi Shull said.

The biography also included his ethical will as well as details about his struggle against the cantonists, who conscripted Jewish boys for the czarist Russian army.

“He was involved in a number of major issues facing Russian Jews,” Rabbi Shull said, noting that an English-language New York Jewish newspaper announced Hillel’s death in 1899.

“It may have appeared before my great-grandmother knew he died in Russia,” he said, musing on the implications of geographical separation and the challenge of leaving Russia.

“It’s not easy leaving your family,” he said. And especially for those coming from a fairly famous rabbinic family, it must have been difficult to come to a country not known for its Jewish scholarship.

Rabbi Shull said his findings have confirmed what he always knew, or suspected.

“On a personal level, I’ve always been interested in ethics and values. I’ve been especially inspired by my father’s family,” he said. Citing several relatives in particular, he said “there was a piety about them. For whatever reason, I was impressed by their gentleness and refinement.” This, together with their religiosity, “served as a model for me.”

Now, he said, he knows that these qualities reflected the family’s tradition of learning.

“Their grandfather was a Musar rabbi who taught that quality.”

Another lesson he learned was “how many people we’re connected to.”

“Jonathan Hanser is a musician who plays with the cantor’s band at my synagogue,” he said. “Jonathan was the band leader at our son’s bar mitzvah… As it turns out, Jonathan also is part of my family tree (through marriage). His great aunt was the niece of my second cousin four times removed.”

Small world indeed.

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