Also check out our Resources Page for links to helpful sites & videos.
Step 1. Interview Family Members
Start with what you know. There are many genealogy forms freely available on the internet or from books. (We have provided a link to some basic forms on the left.) Always start with yourself. Basic information required: Name(s) [most Ashkenazi Jews have multiple names – Hebrew, Yiddish, European, and American / Israeli]; date & place of birth; date & place of immigration; date & place of death and burial; marriage information; children’s information. Fill out the information as completely as possible, then start asking questions of family members and relatives who may have information. Most people do not offer information unless they are asked for it. And don’t just focus on names and dates. Sometimes getting different versions of a story can give you valuable information that no one would think of otherwise. If you’re asking about people who died in the Holocaust and no one will give you answers, try asking about pre-war experiences – whether they went to school, who their best friend was, what the High Holidays or Passover was like. Listen carefully, you’ll hear names you won’t hear otherwise.
Step 2. Decide which lines you are most interested in
Not only will this help narrow down your research, but when you hit a brick wall and get frustrated, you can always do a bit of “quick research” on another line and get re-energized when you find something there. Most genealogists find themselves rotating through their various lines. Remember that you have 4 grandparents, 8 great-grandparents, 16 great-great-grandparents and so on. That’s a lot of research!
Taking the Genealogy 101 Workshop will help you with methodology, resource locations, research techniques and how to organize your information. If you can’t make the JGSLI workshop, both jewishgen.org and ancestry.com have online courses available.
Step 3. See what’s online
Once you have names and where they came from, you can start looking up passenger records, census records, naturalization information, and any other government record that has been made publicly available. Sometimes you’ll just get confirmation of when your ancestor emigrated. Sometimes you’ll get additional information, such as a parent’s name listed as “closest relative in home country”. For Ellis Island records, try Stephen Morse’s One Step Forms if you don’t have an Ancestry.com subscription.
Using online resources such as JewishGen.org, Ancestry.com or Footnote.com allows you to access records and connect with others who may be researching the same family or town. Don’t forget to document where you got all your information. By the time you’ve been doing this awhile, you may not remember which database or which email told you Moshe and Samuel were brothers.
Must-subscribe newsletters for the Jewish genealogist:
Other online items of interest are:
Dick Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter — a long-running daily blog, often focusing on technological help for genealogists
ResearchBuzz — newsletter about digital archives, online museums, databases and other Internet information collections.
Step 4. Search out non-digital records
It doesn’t sound as much fun, but many times what you think you know is wrong, or you got the information from the one record that isn’t correct. Immigration and census records are particularly ripe for errors because our ancestors didn’t trust governments and often told the census taker or immigration official what they knew they wanted to hear, not necessarily the truth.
Cemeteries have a lot of information, especially on headstones and death records. If your family emigrated at the same time as others from their village, there may be benevolent society records, or tradesman union or guild records. Small businesses were often listed in city directories (telephone books from before there were telephones). And don’t forget to go back to the relatives you interviewed earlier with your new information. Oftentimes, this will trigger other memories.
Step 5. Start putting the information together
Once you see what you have in one place, you can start to see where you are missing information. Or you can decide on your next direction to research. Some researchers spend years “going deep” on one line, others focus on their mother’s side or their father’s. And there are always some who seem to be researching everything all at once. (Not recommended for beginners!) Maybe you have names and dates and now you want to find a photograph. If they applied for a passport, you might be able to get a copy of their original passport photo. Maybe they were photographed for a local newspaper. Maybe they served on the board of their synagogue, who might have a photograph in their files. You never know what you’ll find.
Step 6. Get networked
Everyone needs help at some point, and that’s what JGSLI members are here for. Make sure you sign up for our Facebook group to get help at any time. The Mishpocha Mavens are available before every meeting to help. You can post a brick wall in Lineage. You can get the back of a photo translated at a meeting. We don’t mind – one day, you’ll be able to return the favor.
The JewishGen Discussion Groups and Special Interest Groups (SIGs) are read and contributed to by thousands of researchers around the world. On the discussion group, people ask questions, provide helpful hints and help others. In addition to general topics, there are also discussion groups that focus on specific geographic areas and interests within Jewish genealogy. For Jewish researchers, JewishGen is invaluable.
Social media has become invaluable to genealogists. There are numerous Facebook, LinkedIn and Google+ groups available. On Twitter, follow #genealogy or #jewishgenealogy. Additionally, many genealogy conferences are live-tweeted, so you can get the highlights for many of the presentations as they are happening, or by a search afterward.
While the Internet has become an amazing resource, it cannot be, and should not be, your only genealogy resource. Interviewing relatives, visiting graveyards, looking at original documentation, and learning more about the times & places your ancestors lived will make their stories come alive again. You will find interesting things you never knew and some that no one wanted to you find out. You will pick up a thread, and put it down, only to pick it up again later. You will bring people together and occasionally, ruffle some feathers.
Genealogy is a long-term hobby, but not a lonely one. For every brick wall you face, someone else can help figure out how to break through. For every photograph with an unintelligible inscription on the back, there is someone who can decipher it. This is the point of a genealogical society – to help each other, to learn, to understand that history affects us and we affect history, and we are all connected.