In The Media
Building Bridges To The Past
Local Woman Attends Jewish Genealogy Conference In Las Vegas
Legends about organized crime figures Benjamin 'Bugsy' Siegel and Meyer Lansky have become part of our popular culture. You probably know that both men were Jewish. But did you know that Lansky's family emigrated to New York from the town of Grodno in Belarus, or that Siegel was also called by his Yiddish name, Berish?
These were just some of the interesting tidbits presented at the 25th annual Conference on Jewish Genealogy of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (IAJGS) held July 10-15 at- where else?- the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas, the resort and casino that Siegel helped establish more than 50 years ago.
In addition to using such standard genealogy research sources as census and vital records, writer Ron Arons utilized FBI files obtained through the Freedom of Information Act to compile profiles of Siegel and Lansky. His seminar, attended by a standing-room-only audience, was one of many interesting and instructive lectures presented during the conference.
I joined more than 600 Jewish genealogists in braving the Las Vegas heat to meet, learn, research, network and enjoy our shared interests. Conference participants came from throughout the United States (including 11 registrants from Arizona) and Canada, as well as overseas from such places as Israel, England, Venezuela and Japan.
Just two floors above the Flamingo's busy sea of slot machines and gaming tables, the scholarly crowd passed on gambling and focused instead on an intensive week of lectures and meetings. More than 80 speakers presented lectures at the conference. These highly regarded experts came from Austria, Canada, Czech Republic, France, Israel, Scotland, Ukraine and the United States.
In all, there were more than 135 scheduled lectures and meetings on such topics as researching archival holdings in Ukraine and other Eastern European countries, the use of specific documentary sources, research being done in new geographical areas and the use of technology in research and organizing data.
The breadth of programming offered something for everyone, regardless of their level of expertise or particular areas of interest. Beginners as well as seasoned genealogists were well-served by the impressive program.
The IAJGS comprises more than 75 member organizations throughout the world. Jewish Genealogy Society (JGS) chapters can be found on every continent with the exception of Antarctica. IAJGS annual conferences offer Jewish genealogists opportunities to learn and share information and resources, all with a high degree of professionalism. The 2004 IAJGS annual conference was held in Jerusalem. Next year's event will be in New York City.
This year, the conference was hosted by the JGS of Southern Nevada. The timing and choice of location were a good fit, since Las Vegas is currently celebrating the 100-year anniversary of the city's founding while the IAJGS conference celebrated its milestone 25th anniversary.
As conference programming chairwoman Carole Montello explained, conference organizers 'wanted to have a Western flavor' in creating this year's conference program. Thus, the conference offered programs on such specialized Western topics as crypto-Jewish genealogy sources, Jews of the West and the Las Vegas Jewish community, in addition to the lively lecture on mobsters Siegel and Lansky.
The conference officially opened with a keynote speech by Congresswoman Shelley Berkley (D-Nev). Rep. Berkley, who is Jewish, discussed how her family roots helped shape her career and goals. As she described her family's European roots, the impact of the Holocaust on their ancestral communities, her family's migration to and development of roots in Las Vegas and her ongoing commitment to Jewish causes, she gave voice to the emotional connection to genealogical research and the bigger picture of Jewish continuity that many of us feel.
Many of the pioneers and leaders of Jewish genealogy were present throughout the week to share their insights and tips about the newest resources available to genealogists. The contributions of these dedicated individuals to the field of Jewish genealogy are remarkable. They have opened the doors of Eastern Europe, making archival records available for research. They have undertaken extensive and difficult labor-intensive projects involving the obtaining, indexing and translation of the surviving records of Jewish communities destroyed by the Nazis. They have developed databases to share archival resources and records.
The conference also demonstrated that genealogists are involved in more than researching family trees. Several programs addressed the utilization of genealogical tools in researching family traits and genetic diseases.
In one program I attended, Stanley M. Diamond described how genealogists are assisting families with medical and genetic issues. For example, genealogists are helping pinpoint ancestral roots to help families find unknown relatives who may be able to serve as bone-marrow donors for the gravely ill. 'It's natural that our archives would react quickly to these life-saving matters,' Diamond said.
Although our daily schedules were full of lectures and opportunities to network and learn from the leaders in the field, there was also time to share resources and undertake additional research. A wide variety of research materials and resources were made available for participants in a designated resource room and online through available computer banks staffed by knowledgeable volunteers. Visiting archivists offered access to special databases, and translators were available to provide assistance.
To me, the conference presented a unique opportunity to learn about new resources and meet and share experiences with those who share my passion for Jewish genealogy. I found it to be a tremendous learning experience.
Genealogy offers bridges to the past as we seek through our research to learn who our ancestors were, how they lived and how they perished. Genealogy also offers bridges to the future, as research efforts of Jewish genealogists have opened European archives, discovered evidence and produced testimony, brought families together and even aided in genetic and medical research. As noted by Nevada Gov. Kenny C. Guinn in his welcoming letter to participants: 'Much good can be accomplished when large groups of like-minded people unite in a valuable project of this magnitude.'
Amy Fellner, a faculty associate at Arizona State University and a retired attorney, has been involved in Jewish genealogy for more than 20 years. She has traced branches of her family to the early 18th century, visited all of her ancestors' towns in Eastern Europe and conducted research in archives in Lithuania and Poland. She can be contacted at email@example.com.
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