Afew dozen people showed up when Bruce Kahn gave his first speech on on-line Jewish genealogical research in 1993. The setting was the annual Conference on Jewish Genealogy, sponsored by the Jewish Genealogical Society (JGS).
Kahn, then a research scientist at Eastman Kodak in Rochester, N.Y., and a founder of the city’s JGS branch, predicted that the Internet would revolutionize genealogical research.
"People thought I was crazy," he says.
The 19th annual convention met for six days in Manhattan this week and about 200 people came to Kahn’s speech, "The Internet: Jewish Genealogy on the Information Superhighway." And, now "there’s nobody saying I’m crazy," says Kahn.
In-depth studying of family trees and family histories, once the province of experts, is now possible for anyone with a computer and a modem.
"It’s one of the fastest-growing uses of the Internet: growing by leaps and bounds," says Kahn, now an assistant professor of imaging and photographic technology at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
The interest was apparent at the computer room set up at the Marriott Marquis Hotel during the conference. Participants sat at 10 terminals from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, investigating relative’s names and hometowns. "There are usually people waiting," said Michael Levine, chairman of the computer room. "There is 110 percent usage."
And the interest was evident in the registration rolls. Some 1,200 people registered, a 50 percent increase over last year’s total. "We think the explosion of interest in genealogy on the Internet has brought a lot of people," said Linda Cantor, registration chairman. Many enrolled, and inquired about the gathering, on the JGS Web site.
In addition, the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union a decade ago made thousands of heretofore records available and helped spark interest in Old Country roots.
This week’s crowd was "almost entirely amateurs," Cantor said. Largely middle-aged, they attended speeches on such topics as "Surname Changes and Missing Surnames in 19th Century Polish Records" and "How to Decipher and Read a Hebrew Tombstone" and "You Don’t Have to Invite Your Relatives: Organizing A Successful Family Reunion.
"They went on tours of local Jewish sites, and registered in projects about Jewish genetic diseases.
They browsed in a vendors’ room, where family tree forms and scores of roots books were on sale: not everything at the conference was high-tech. But there were also countless CD-ROMs and computer programs.
"The Internet is changing the way we do things," said Adam Bronstein, Web site/database chairman.
For Kahn, a native of St. Paul, Minn., most of the on-line genealogical advances came too late for researching his own family’s background. Formerly a Hebrew school teacher, he attended a Jewish educator’s conference in 1992, was inspired by a speech by author Arthur Kurzweil, and set out to document his family’s story.
His research took him to Lithuania: his father’s side has Baltic roots. Eventually he discovered other genealogically oriented relatives, and was able to reunite some long-estranged (and previously unknown) branches of his family.
He did his work just before the on-line explosion of information.
Kahn spoke this week wearing the "Family Tree of the Jewish People" CD-ROM, which he created, on a string around his neck. With a laptop computer on the podium and an enlarged computer screen on an adjacent movie screen, he described the variety of genealogical resources that have become available on-line over the last few years. Historical maps. Ship passenger records. Yizkor books. Dozens of Web sites, both specifically Jewish (including his, jgsr.hq.net) and general sites with Jewish sub-sites.
"That can be a timesaver for your genealogical research," he said.
Kahn asked for a show of hands about various on-line resources. Few people raised their hands, though some offered suggestions during the question-and-answer period.
Jewish genealogists are "at the front" of the field in developing on-line resources, he said. "Maybe we’re ahead of it." General genealogists have devoted little interest to specifically Jewish (or other ethnic groups) areas, forcing the Jewish community to look inward. "We have very focused goals, very focused needs."
Has the Internet obviated visits to archives and distant municipal office, the formerly, time-consuming, main sources of genealogical research?
Definitely not, Kahn said.
"It really hasn’t replaced it, because the original documents, by and large, have not been scanned" and put on on-line. Some Internet site might indicate if records from a specific time and place are extant, but "you won’t find your grandfather’s birth record on the Internet," he said. A trip to city hall is still necessary. "The Internet is not a substitute for sitting in an archive and going through [old records]."
Internet research "helps you be more efficient," saving time and money, Kahn said, adding that far-flung researchers with common interests can instantly communicate with each other over e-mail. "It was virtually impossible before. Now it’s exceedingly easier."
Kahn said advances in on-line research have outstripped his ability to keep abreast of the field. "When I started doing this, I knew everything that was available on the Internet. I can’t begin to be comprehensive anymore."
In his speech, he added several genealogical Web sites that came to his attention since he submitted a handout list to the conference organizers a few months ago.
One member of the audience, taking careful notes, shook her head at the end of Kahn’s speech. "You can spend eight hours a day on the Web," she said.