Tracking Our Ancestors

1015geneaologyDodging sprinkler systems and cleaning dirt, leaves and mud from grave markers, is all a part of what the intrepid members of the Jewish Cemetery Project of Orange County face as they attempt to take pictures of Jewish graves.

The sacred grounds upon which our family members and ancestors are buried hold a plethora of facts often relevant to those who seek information about those who fill their family tree. In particular, Jewish gravestones, or matzevot, can provide valuable information like the name of the deceased, the dates of birth and death, their Hebrew name, and the Hebrew name of the father (and occasionally the mother.) Knowing these facts can also help researchers (or just the curious) discern whether someone is actually the family member or ancestor they were seeking. While burial data is just one factor that can contribute to successful genealogical research, it is nevertheless an important one.

JewishGen, a non-profit organization affiliated with the Museum of Jewish Heritage—A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, was founded in 1987 as a bulletin board with only 150 users who were interested in Jewish genealogy. Primarily driven by volunteers, today there are over 700 active volunteers throughout the world who actively contribute to their ever growing collection of databases, resources and search tools. JewishGen hosts more than 20 million records, and provides a myriad of resources and search tools designed to assist those researching their Jewish ancestry.

The JewishGen Online Worldwide Burial Registry (JOWBR) is a database of names and other identifying information from Jewish cemeteries and burial records worldwide, from the earliest available records to the present. It is a compilation of two linked databases: a database of burial records, and a database of information about each particular cemetery. JOWBR’s aim is to catalog extant data about Jewish cemeteries and burial records worldwide.  Photographs of the gravestones are also included in this database.

Jewish Gen of Orange County became involved with this project after several members explored the JewishGen.org database on their own. Shmuel Fisher, a past president of OCJGS, took it on because he felt it had to be done and he wanted to do this. “It is surprising that so few people know what is required of a Jewish grave: parents’ names, dates of birth and death, in Hebrew as well as English,” said Fisher. “We’ve become too Americanized.” In a few places there were names of children and grandchildren, but the original surnames were missing; if a woman’s maiden name is not mentioned she is lost.

Once pictures of the graves have been taken they are uploaded with all the captured information from the stones. “Sometimes there were Yiddish names I had never heard of before,” said Fisher. “And there were also errors in the Hebrew; in one case the Hebrew was written left to right.” In other cases, grass obscured the writing.

When Sandy Bursten of the OCJGS learned of the project several years ago she did a search on it for the state of New Jersey. Only two names appeared, but to her amazement they happened to be her grandparents whose graves she had never visited.

A team including Karen Lehrich, Flo Zysman, Adrienne Escoe, Rhoda Becker, Sarit Shalgi, Lyn Long and Shmuel Fisher created  spreadsheets that needed to be completed according to JOWBR’s specifications. As they finished each section in the cemetery, they sent the information to JOWBR where it is published. “In entering the data,” said Fisher, “one notices families and children who died much before their time, that some were military veterans, and even indications that the person was a holocaust survivor. Most of the stones had a personal feeling. Some were very moving. It became very emotional.”

The Orange County Jewish Genealogy Society which has served as a resource since 1983, stumbled for a few years then re-emerged in 2011 expanding services to the members of the community. The Society meets on the fourth Sunday of most months at Temple Bat Yahm in Newport Beach, from 1:30p.m. – 3:30p.m..

Each OCJGS meeting features a speaker covering relevant topics about tracing one’s Jewish ancestors. They also offer hands-on beginner workshops several times each year. Meetings and workshops are designed to help beginners get started in creating a family tree and help experienced genealogists overcome stumbling blocks.

The Cemetery Project allows descendants to discover the graves of long-lost ancestors they never knew and help them connect with their heritage.

Florence L. Dann, a fourth year rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in LA has been a contributing writer to Jlife since 2004.

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