by Miriam Kairey
Perhaps the best gift you can give your family is one that will last for generations. A family tree is such a gift. Information about our relatives that is available to us today through our elders is slipping through our fingers at this very moment. Preserving this valuable legacy should be a priority and the time to start is now.
You may ask yourself “How do I start?” and “What do I do?” Fortunately for us we live in the internet age. The internet allows us to find not only documents pertaining to our ancestors, but also other relatives all over the world who we may not even know about. To get started you need to choose a way to save your information. You can download a free program called “Legacy” from the internet and enter your information offline. This is an advantage if you don’t have an internet connection. The file you make can always be transferred later to an online Genealogy site such as Geni.com or Ancestry.com.
Geni- Free and easy to use. It provides a good broad view of your tree so you can see many relatives on the screen at once. However it does not provide good access to documents which are important sources of information about your relatives.
Ancestry- My choice. You can start with a free account. Enter all the information you can find out. Then if you want you can opt for the paid subscription which will lead you to documents such as census, army enlistment and immigration records. I recommend this for families that have been in the US for more than 60 years. Newer documents are held back for privacy reasons. Ancestry allows you to choose whether you want to make your tree Public or Private. I recommend making it Public and choose the option to hide living people. This way others searching for the same ancestors can more easily find their way to you.
Now assuming you have chosen Ancestry.com, let’s get going:
- Start with yourself. Enter everything you know. Next recruit other relatives to help. Ancestry allows you to “invite” other family members to view and even work on the tree with you. Sharing the work is fun and gets the job done quicker. Information you gather from relatives provide valuable clues that can often be backed up with documentation you find yourself. Sometimes a snippet of information will lead you to solving some great family mystery.
- Collect photos. You can scan them into your computer and upload them to Ancestry. Then all who visit your tree can enjoy them. Even if you never make a tree, when you visit your elder relatives, ask them to show you photos and WRITE ON THE BACK of the picture so that the names of those in the pictures will be remembered. It is very frustrating and all too common to come across a collection of old photos and no one remembers who was in them. Ancestry also gives you a place to type in stories told by elders in order to preserve them
- Find relatives. Ancestry will help you by locating other members researching the same ancestor. It is an exciting experience to find a long-lost cousin. As Jews we have relatives scattered all around the world and it is possible to find them.
- Research. You can learn so much more about your ancestors if you dig. As mentioned, Ancestry.com can help you locate US based documents. You can also visit ellisisland.org and search for your family (free search), however not all immigrants entered the US through Ellis Island. Ancestry can help comb through the records of other Ports of Entry.
If you want to go back further, where to look will depend on where your ancestors are from. A good place to start is jewishgen.org. Here you will find a place to enter in the town your ancestors are from. For example, if you type in “Aleppo” you will be given a list of family names and researchers searching for those families from Aleppo. You will then email the others who are researching the same name as you are. These fellow researchers are a great source of information even if they are not related to you. They can point you to sources relevant to your family.
You can also pay a visit to the Ackman and Ziff Genealogical Institute at the Center for Jewish History, 15 W. 16th Street in Manhattan. Bring a pencil (not pen) and a notebook and expect to spend some time. Although it is better to go there knowing what you are looking for, the folks that work there may be able to point you to helpful resources.
Uncovering your ancestry can be a long Journey or a brief trip – it’s up to you. The important thing is to take the first step. You never know where the road will lead you. You just may be amazed at what you find out.