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Online genealogy project seeks volunteers

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Jewish history becomes personal with JewishGen, an online genealogy project


Does your family have stories and myths about their immigration to America? Does its history stop at the shores of the New World? Do you despair of finding tombstones or memorial plaques that might fill in blanks in your extended family tree?

There’s an ongoing world-wide project that can help answer some of these questions. You, in turn, can then help others searching for the answers to the same questions about their genealogy.

Doris Rubenstein at United Hebrew Brethern Cemetery in Richfield. (Photo: Doris Rubenstein)

Five years ago, I learned that B’nai Israel Synagogue that — according to family myth — my paternal grandfather had helped to found in McKeesport, Penn, was preparing to celebrate its centennial. A helpful administrator there was kind enough to send me copies of the articles of incorporation, and sure enough, there was “Robert Rubenstein” listed as a charter member! One family myth transformed into fact.

I roped a couple cousins into joining me at the centennial celebration, and we took advantage of the trip to visit the nearby B’nai Israel cemetery where our mutual ancestors were buried. There, we easily found our family plot but were puzzled to see nearby graves with the name Rubinstein.

I knew that our family’s name had originally been spelled that way, but I’d never met or heard of any other relatives who still used that spelling. Where were they? How were we related? I returned to the Twin Cities with many unanswered questions rattling in my brain and wishing that I’d taken pictures of those gravestones.

Those questions turned into a four-year quest for answers that eventually resulted in a 96-page “historical novel” about the “First Rubensteins in America.” Many of those questions about possible “Rubinstein” relatives wouldn’t have been answered had not that same helpful administrator at B’nai Israel told me about the JewishGen Online Worldwide Burial Registry (JOWBR) Project.

Back to those family tombstones. Traditional Jewish matzevot (Hebrew for “tombstones”) have lots of juicy information. Of particular interest to me was the name of the deceased’s father. Reading the online photographs of our family gravestones, I was determined that the Juda Rubinstein in the cemetery was my grandfather’s older brother. Using that information, and using the free version of Ancestry.com available through the public library, I was able to connect with a vast network of cousins I never knew existed.

Shared family myths were compared and confirmed to be true, and new friendships have resulted. So, without those tombstones, seen on-line through JOWBR, my family tree would be little more than a bush, and my novel only a short story. How fortunate I am that the Rubenstein family tombstones in an off-the-beaten-track rural cemetery were among the first to be photographed and catalogues with JOWBR.

I wanted to help others like me, who lived far away from their ancestors’ resting place, to be able to discover their family history. I live in Richfield. While the number of Jewish households in our little “urban hometown” can likely be counted on two hands, the number of “souls” resting in Jewish cemeteries here are in the tens of thousands.

I contacted the administrator of JOWBR who sent me all the instructions and documents I’d need to add the metzevot in Richfield to the photographic and informational databases. It’s a big task, but a pleasant way to spend a couple hours each week outdoors during the warm weather, photographing gravestones. Transferring the information onto a spread sheet is a fruitful way to use time during our long winters.

What is needed to do this task, which I consider a kind of chesed shel emes, the mitzva of tending to the dead? A very simple camera, the ability to read some easy Hebrew and use the computer Excel program, free time, and the willingness to do the work. I’ve been at it for about a year now, and I’ve barely scratched the surface of the Jewish cemeteries in Richfield. I hope I complete the task before I become a resident in one of these places.

JOWBR coordinator Nolan Altman is looking for volunteers across Minnesota, the U.S. and the whole world to complete this monumental project. If you or someone you know has the ability and interest to contribute electronic photographs to the JewishGen Online Worldwide Burial Registry Project, contact him at nta@pipeline.com.

JewishGen also sponsors the website KehilaLinks, facilitating web pages commemorating the places where Jews have lived. KehilaLinks provides the opportunity for anyone with an interest in a place to create web pages about that community. These web pages may contain information, pictures, databases, and links to other sources providing data about that place. All this information is contributed by volunteers. The coordinator for KehilaLinks is Susana Leistner Bloch, KehilaHelp@lyris.jewishgen.org.

If you have the time and the ability to help with either of these projects, even for a short time, do it! It’s a mitzva.

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