Marin software firm aiding Jewish genealogy groups

With more than a million names in their combined databases, a new conglomeration of genealogy groups hopes to help more Jews who want to dig into their past.

To reach their goal, the groups have turned to a Marin County genealogy software company.

"People usually think of genealogy as someone trying to find their link to someone famous in history," says Brian Mavrogeorge, executive producer of genealogical products at the San Rafael-based software firm Palladium Interactive.

"Maybe 50 or 100 years ago that was true. Now people are interested in documenting their family history. It's a way to make sure Holocaust stories don't get lost. I can't think of a better way to honor them than building this tree."

Along with a Salt Lake City firm, Palladium Interactive is providing the search engine for the genealogy project known as the Family Tree of the Jewish People.

The Jewish groups involved are the online JewishGen, the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies and Israel's Beth Hatefutsoth, the Museum of the Diaspora.

Project organizers hope that pooling their resources will allow more people to access information.

At least one of the groups already offers online access to some names and information. A forthcoming CD-ROM will also provide some data. But eventually, the project hopes to provide all their collected names and family backgrounds through several forms of technology.

Currently, JewishGen — — can be reached only by those who have access to the Internet. The IAJGS only serves its members. And accessing Beth Hatefusoth's resources may require a trip to Israel, said Robert Weiss, immediate past president of the San Francisco Bay Area Jewish Genealogical Society.

The genealogy searches will allow seekers to enter the names of their fathers and grandfathers, their approximate dates of birth and death, as well as where they lived. In return, seekers can receive lists of possible relatives and forebears.

Jewish genealogy can specifically have important implications for people trying to claim reparations for family members killed in the Holocaust.

"When people say, `Of course we have these assets but we don't know who the people are,' well, that may or may not be true," Mavrogeorge said.

Because some Jews worry about releasing personal information, safeguards are being put into place to protect participants' privacy.

"We're not putting in any personal information like birth dates of living people who are less than 100 years old," Weiss said.

Bruce Kahn, chair of Family Tree of the Jewish People project and a board member of the New York IAJGS, has traced his family back to the second century. He found not only names but family stories.

His great-great-grandfather, for example, was a yeshiva student in Bolozyn, Belarus.

"The yeshiva was looking for a new head," Kahn said, "so they brought in one of the best-known rabbis of the time. He wanted one of the students of the yeshiva to marry his daughter."

Kahn's great-great-grandfather decided to pose a difficult question to the students, figuring that whoever could answer it was bright enough to marry his daughter. Unfortunately, no one could answer.

"One student chased [the rabbi] down later," Kahn continued. "`I have to know the answer,' he said. The rabbi said, `You have the proper thirst for Torah. You can marry my daughter.'"

The new Family Tree project may not be able to provide information on how someone's great-great-grandparents met. But it may deepen one's connection to Jewish heritage.

"I think it's important to document our past so that people don't tell us what our past is," Mavrogeorge said. "Genealogy is a very personal, very passionate hobby. It's saying [outsiders] won't define who we are or what we were."