Back in the day — the distant past of the 1980s and ‘90s — amateur genealogists would have to trek to their local city archives and pour over pages and pages of ledgers or hundreds of microfilm images to have any hope of finding information about their family.
The International Association of Jewish Genealogical Society’s 2022 Virtual International Conference, held Aug. 21-25, shows how much things have changed.
The five-day conference, co-hosted by the Jewish Genealogical and Archival Society of Greater Philadelphia, will feature 60 live-streaming presentations, 100 pre-recorded presentations and 40 group meetings for the conference’s 600-700 guests from 13 time zones and countries including South Africa, Australia, Israel and all over the United States. Provided that COVID is not an issue next year, Philadelphia will likely host the 2023 IAJGS conference,
The conference’s virtual format is only one way in which genealogy has adapted to the age of technology, a common thread of many of the conference’s topics.
“You can literally do genealogy from the comfort of your own home,” JGASGP President Felicia Alexander said.
For American Jews, the genealogy journey is a complicated and winding one. Unlike populations with descendants from the Mayflower, Jews must often search deeper for bits and pieces of their history, making the growing use of DNA analysis and technologies all the more useful, believes Judi Missel, IAJGS conference co-chair.
“It is much easier to sit at your home computer and go down the rabbit hole for three hours than it would be to go to the archives in Europe,” she said.
IAJGS welcomes genealogists with a variety of experience levels, including amateur genealogists just getting started.
Sharon Taylor, a Philadelphia-area presenter at the conference, will hold a talk for beginners titled “Gangster Grandma: Organized Crime in Early Twentieth Century Philadelphia.”
Taylor grew up with little information about her family history, as both sets of grandparents had died by the time she was nine.
“As a child, I never had anyone to ask questions of,” she said. “My parents were the children of recent immigrants, and they just weren’t really interested in life in the old country, and they didn’t ask a lot of the questions that were to become important to me.”
Despite the lack of knowledge of the details of Taylor’s family history, she did learn one thing from her mother growing up: that her aunt Dora, sister to her grandmother Fannie, had financed the family’s immigration to the U.S. from 1913-1920 by working at a brothel.
After connecting with come cousins in Philadelphia and learning more about her family history, Taylor gained a broader interest in Jewish criminal activity in the Philadelphia area.
Though the nature of Dora’s job meant she likely had ties to the mob in addition to engaging in illegal sex work, Taylor does not begrudge her aunt for her criminal past.
“She was a product of her time. I appreciate the legacy that she left for me,” Taylor said. “She made my life in America possible.”
More broadly, learning about her family’s past gave Taylor a greater appreciation of how she and her family fit into a greater story.
“It gives you a connection,” Taylor said of genealogy. “Understanding your people puts you in history.”
Taylor’s history is part of a larger picture on Philadelphia’s rich Jewish history that made the city a good candidate to “host” this year’s conference. The last time Philadelphia hosted was in 2009.
Philadelphia saw a large influx of Sephardic immigrants from the Iberian Peninsula after the Spanish Inquisition of the late 15th century. Because of their longtime presence in the area, Jews helped provide financial backing to the Continental Army, Alexander explained.
“I had no idea growing up that it was not only such a rich history, but a fascinating history,” she said. “We’ve got all these great universities and so many synagogues in the Greater Philadelphia area, but like other cities, it started out with the central community of Jewish people living in Center City, and then migrating out.”
JGASGP also has a large network of over 400 members, according to Past President Fred Blum, which also helps make Philadelphia an apt host for the conference. JGASGP spent the past few years collecting records from various Jewish Cemeteries in Atlantic City and at Har Nebo Cemetery, and is currently working with Har Yehuda in Upper Darby to do the same. The goal is to make these records accessible to members.
“We’re constantly learning,” Blum said. “It’s a constant learning process.”
For additional information about the conference, visit iajgs2022.org.