All that was known of my great grandmother’s childhood and her family, consisted of a few sentences: her mother came to America alone with only a locket stitched in her skirt for safekeeping; she died from a back-alley abortion; and her four children, including my great grandmother, were admitted into an orphanage. The desire to learn more about my family’s history stayed with me, but it wasn’t until I began my undergraduate degree at UC Irvine more than five years ago that I was able to fulfill that wish.
I knew instantly that I wanted to focus my Humanities Honors thesis on my family history. Not long after I began my genealogical research, I hit an obstacle—I couldn’t find any records of my family prior to the 1930s. Through trial and error, and perhaps some luck, I stumbled across a census record of an orphanage in Philadelphia with my great grandmother and her sibling’s names. The genealogy sites could only take me so far. I had to go straight to the sources.
The first source existed in the Philadelphia Jewish Archives Collections at Temple University where I found the orphanage’s collection and other records pertaining to my family. Many of my family’s treasures lay hidden in these archival boxes, and I went on a journey to find them. The second source resided in the amazing memory of my great aunt Essie (Esther), and at 94 years old she is the eldest member of my family. I had the privilege to meet and interview her. Her memories revealed the heart of my paper: the Foster Home for Hebrew Orphans where she and her siblings grew up. A home earning the title as America’s first Jewish orphanage founded in 1855 by Jewish philanthropist, Rebecca Gratz. My thesis sought to understand not only the orphanage’s place in the history of child care, but also how it fit into American Jewish history and how it was a reflection of the Jewish community of Philadelphia.
While researching, drafting, and presenting my thesis, little did I know that I was also discovering myself. My time in the archives sparked an interest in me that I never knew I had. An interest that transformed into a passion leading me to where I am today: earning my Master of Library & Information Science at UCLA. My great aunt Essie also filled a space in my heart that had been empty for almost fourteen years since the death of my grandmother. I am honored to have her in my life and enjoy every minute with her as she helps to strengthen my Jewish identity.
Take the journey for yourself—visit an archive or talk with the eldest members of your family! You may be surprised by the treasures you will find. As for me, my journey is far from over as I continue to trace my family’s history back to Russia.
Dvorah Lewis is a contributing writer.