South Jersey looms large as hundreds explore their roots
For Rabbi Gary Gans of Marlton's Cong. Beth Tikvah, the best week of the year is when the international conference on Jewish genealogy takes place.
Earlier this month, it was a double simcha for him. Gans was a presenter and a learner at the 29th Intern ational Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies Conference, held at the Sheraton Philadelphia Center City Hotel during the first week of August. The Jewish Genealogy Society of Greater Philadelphia cosponsored the event, which drew 900 visitors from four continents, 13 countries and 42 states.
"This is one of the most creative weeks, when fellow genealogy addicts end up in the same place. It brings about a great new energy level," said Gans, whose synagogue is the meeting site for the Jewish Genealogical Society's South Jersey affiliate group. The rabbi, a tombstone maven, presided over two wellattended workshops on the history of grave markers, focusing on how to decipher Hebrew inscriptions and use them to gain clues valuable in family research.
At the conference, Gans also discovered more contacts and resources to aid his own research. He has already found his great-grandmother's Lithuanian postal bank account in rubles, and noted that with the fall of the Iron Curtain and archives from Eastern Europe resurfacing, there has never been a better time for budding genealogists.
JGSGP's David Mink, who co-chaired the conference, grew up in Jenkintown, PA, but lived in Cherry Hill for 32 years before moving to Philly in 2006. Mink, the owner of the Sansom Street Oyster House, said South Jersey was destined to play a major part in the conference.
"South Jersey's Jewish agricultural communities are a story that isn't told too often, but this was an opportunity to tell that story," he said. Workshops and panel discussions about the Jewish agricultural colonies were followed by a mid-week bus tour of key sites.
Amateur genealogist David Brill, a civil engineer from Cherry Hill, has researched his maternal great-great-grandparents, Moses and Rebecca Levene, who settled in the colony of Carmel in the early 1880s. They relocated to Philadelphia around 1893, but kept the idealism that drew them to make something of the land.
"A lot of the Philadelphia Jewish community find they have connections to these Jewish colonies," Brill said. He ran one of the workshops that gave the conference a unique local flavor, and helped lead the bus tour, which stopped at the one-room, circa 1890 Garton Road Shul in Rosenhayn, and visited the Alliance, Carmel and Woodbine colonies.
A highlight of the tour was meeting Helen and Morris Ostroff, who grew up in the colonies and are guardians of the Garton Road Shul. "We were very happy to get that personal connection," Brill said.
South Jersey's Jewish history holds a particular fascination for Cherry Hill resident Ruth Bogutz, president of the Tri-County Jewish Historical Society. Her husband Richard's mother was born in Rosenhayn, but she has concentrated on studying community building in urban areas such as Camden and smaller pockets such as the old section of Springville in Mount Laurel. It was founded before World War I by 25 Russian Jewish immigrants seeking escape from Philadelphia. It eventually became a weekend retreat for local Jewish families.
Bogutz' conference sessions drew people who live in South Jersey now or had moved away but wanted to know what was going on in their old neighborhoods.
"The dedication of the generations that came before me was quite amazing," said Bogutz, who plans to make a film about the Jewish communities of Burlington, Camden and Gloucester counties. Bogutz said she also learned from those who attended her programs, and even bumped into a woman whom she'd been good friends with 50 years ago in Camden.
For Haddonfield residents Joyce Kay, a retired psychiatrist, and her husband, Gordon, a retired pathologist, the conference has become a nearly annual event. The couple, who emigrated from Scotland in 1964, have followed the conference to the Catskills, Washington, DC, even Sacramento—each time making more connections and gathering more clues about their ancestors, who hailed from Lithuania and Latvia.
They have learned about Gordon's family, the Karnovskys, and have attended a Karnovsky family reunion. They have met cousins from Vineland and are now trying to trace some of Joyce's maternal cousins who migrated to South Africa.
Joyce Kay's mother's name is a difficult one to trace— Levine, changed to Lewin. But she has found a relative in Texas who has been helpful, and this year met a professional genealogist from South Africa who also gave her some pointers.
"We attended some very useful meetings on using computers to trace family history, and on presenting the family tree," said Joyce, who has conducted presentations on migration patterns at past conferences.
A lot of the groundwork for those hoping to research their Jewish roots in the Delaware Valley has been laid by Mount Laurel resident Steve Schecter. He has created a 200-page illustrated resource guide that every conference registrant received on a CD. It includes information on heritage landmarks and area synagogues, cemeteries and funeral homes—both active and inactive.
Schecter became interested in the subject when his mother used to talk about growing up in "the good old days" in South Philadelphia.
"She'd refer to folks as 'boat relatives,' meaning they came over (from Europe) on the same boat. After my mother died and I did more research, I learned that they did come over and band together, but frequently they were related through marriage or were distant cousins," Schecter said. He plans to integrate feedback from the conference into his guide, and eventually will come out with a hardback book or larger CD.
"We're at a critical juncture in time. The last generation of native Yiddish speakers and people who experienced the Holocaust are dying off. We need to recapture their history," Schecter said.
"Finding your roots is not just finding long lost dead people. It's finding out the context of their lives, the challenges they confronted so that we could have the tremendous advantages that we do have," he said. .