Founders of this year’s IAJGS forum in Seattle, WA, promise even newcomers will geek out about discovering their genetic history
SEATTLE — If you’ve ever wondered how Jews got to Finland, Scotland or New Zealand, there’s a speaker who can answer that question at this summer’s International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies conference in Seattle, Washington.
The six-day event with 325 venues, a Jewish film festival, and a new track — Genealogy for Educators — will spark your curiosity and help you on your genealogical journey, whether you’re sleuthing for ancestors or sending your DNA by mail hoping for a match.
Last year’s conference was held in Jerusalem, and though organizers can’t promise such a rain-free experience this August in the often-overcast Pacific Northwest, they do warn that once you dabble in this ever-expanding science, in any case you won’t want to leave the building.
“People have used the word obsession and they’re not far off,” said conference co-chair and senior research manager for Salt Lake City-based Ancestry Pro Genealogists, Dr. Janette Silverman.
“It’s costly, for sure — and those TV shows are highly addictive — but genealogical research places our family in the saga of their history and times. If we can find something that speaks to us, we can make the history personal,” said Silverman.
This year’s conference features a global mix of researchers from groups like the Jewish Records Indexing in Poland, the Lithuanian State Historical Archives, the Center for Jewish History, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee Archives.
Each will bring the latest research on Jewish migration to and from Europe, the Sephardic Jewish experience in America and into the American West, the Jews in South America, Australia, and South Africa, and the Jews’ return to Israel.
Devin Naar, the Sephardic Studies program chair at the University of Washington in Seattle, will deliver the keynote address, “Sephardic Family History as Jewish Family History.”
Conference co-chair Silverman, a self-described hater of history class throughout high school, has since uncovered links to more than 15,000 family members tracing back to 15th Century Europe.
“One of the things that motivate me is the people that died in the Holocaust,” said Silverman, who teaches classes on how to research using online archives. “Part of what I do gives them life and helps keep their names alive.”
‘It doesn’t matter whether you’re Ashkenazi or Sephardi, you look the same on the Y chromosome’
Whether you start with Internet databases like JewishGen.org, Genealogy.org.il, or Ancestry.com — or whether you decide to use a DNA test — most genealogists would probably agree: just get started.
For around $100, an autosomal DNA test kit will analyze one of 22 chromosomes — minus the sex chromosomes — and can find relatives that are related to your great, great, great grandparents.
For roughly $200, another DNA test can uncover mitochondrial DNA or mtDNA which is passed down virtually unaltered from mother to daughter.
And for a few hundred dollars, more or less, a Y-DNA test can analyze the male-inherited Y chromosome passed down nearly unchanged from father to son.
“I think everyone should buy the autosomal test because autosomal DNA matches you up, very reliably, against an aunt-uncle, niece-nephew, half siblings, first, second, and generally, third cousins, very well,” said Bennett Greenspan, a conference speaker, entrepreneur and an admitted life-long evangelist for Jewish genealogy.
Greenspan founded Family Tree DNA in 2000. The company is one of the most recognized non-medical DNA testers in the world.
Greenspan will be presenting several sessions at the IAJGS conference including “DNA and The Jewish People,” which, he said, is guaranteed to provoke conversation.
To date, Greenspan has amassed the male-inherited Y-DNA profiles of nearly 15,000 Jewish men in his database, reaching what genealogists call “critical mass.”
These numbers of Jewish men allowed Greenspan to compare the genetic signatures found in Middle Eastern populations with those from European populations.
Greenspan found that Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews and Muslim Arabs are a nearly perfect genetic match and he hypothesizes that both, quite likely, originated from the same tribe, long ago, in the Middle East.
“The Jews are from the Middle East and it doesn’t matter whether you’re Ashkenazi or Sephardi, you look the same on the Y chromosome,” said Greenspan. “There is almost no difference between Ashkenazim, Sephardim, and Muslim Arabs.
‘It’s forcing the Arabs to understand that we are from the Middle East as well and that we are not moving to a place that we never were’
“It’s forcing the Arabs to understand that we are from the Middle East as well and that we are not moving to a place that we never were,” said Greenspan.
The maternal or mitochondrial DNA is not nearly as simple or as accurate as the male Y-DNA, said Greenspan, because Jewish women were often sent to other countries as brides for single Jewish men or non-Jewish women were converted in order to marry the Jewish bachelors in that land.
“I think every man should do a Y chromosome [test] because it’s clear and unambiguous,” said Greenspan, who is eager to compile a census of the Jewish people for his next project.
“Either you match someone with your same last name, which means you’re related to them, or you do not match someone with your same last name and the reason is you’re not related to them,” said Greenspan.
Finding a deed, a passport, or a long lost relative from a town renamed over time to suit the language of the conquering army can tell you a lot.
“DNA by itself won’t do anything,” said Grossman. “You really have to do the research. Usually the very first step is to talk to your oldest relatives. Start with yourself, then start working backwards, one generation at a time.”
Grossman is on the board of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Washington State, the host of this year’s conference. Her search for family members led her to Ukraine three times where she eventually found them in the town of Trochenbrod, which was the subject of the 2005 movie, “Everything is Illuminated.”
“Find out what people know, what they remember,” said Grossman. “You don’t want just names and dates, but the stories. You want to fill in the stories about who they were and how they lived.”