Getting Started in Jewish Genealogy Research

Getting Started in Jewish Genealogy doesn't have to be difficult.

Do you have Jewish ancestors and you’re unsure how to get started in Jews in Genealogy Research? Jennifer Mendelsohn, from the Jewish Genealogy Society of Maryland, shares a few tips on how to successfully trace this side of your family tree.

To watch the full interview, visit this link.

Tip 1: Begin Your Jewish Research by Talking to Relatives

For anybody getting started with Jewish Genealogy Research, or any sort of genealogy, talk to the oldest people in your family. Talk to grandma, grandpa’s sister, and more.

  • Ask about the general framework for your tree.
    • Are your ancestors Polish?
    • Are your ancestors Russian?

Get a general sense of names, dates and places.

Imagine genealogy as playing the game Concentration. You have to remember the cards that you’ve seen and turned over.

You never know when something that grandma mentioned in that first conversation that you have is going to come back later and be very important. She may mention the name Kurtz. Six months from now you’re going to be looking at records and see the name Kurtz and a light bulb will set off.

Tip 2: Do Not Make Assumptions about Jewish Genealogy

Many people who are getting started in Jewish Genealogy research believe a lot of misconceptions. Don’t make assumptions.

One common misconception is that our names were changed at Ellis Island.
We all should know that didn’t happen.

Another myth is that there are no records because they were all burned during World War II.
That is so not true.

It’s so exciting for those who don’t believe these myths to show people the records being unearthed for Jewish ancestors in Eastern Europe every single day. Some of them are free and online. You just need to know where to look for them.

Where do you research ancestors who might have been part of the Holocaust?

There are two great places to start online that have tons of records. First, visit Yad Vashem, which is the Israeli Holocaust Museum. Use the Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names. This includes tons and tons of
records they try to account for every person who was lost in the Holocaust.

Visit the yadvashem.org Shoah database for Holocaust victims

The most valuable collection contains testimonies. Testimonies are pages of information, usually provided by family members. Sometimes friends report on someone who was lost in the Holocaust.

The witnesses fill out a sheet for each person with as much information as they have. The people who write those testimonies are often a great source of information. If you find a testimony written for your relative by somebody who claims to be a relative, but you don’t know this individual, then try to find that person.

You can also search the database for just surnames in certain towns. Jennifer found an entire branch of her family that she didn’t know about based on just searching for a name and place through which she knew she was connected.

Visit www.ushmm.org for the Database of Survivors and Victims

The second resource is the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Their website has a collection called the Database of Holocaust Survivor and Victim Names. You can search by name and get all sorts of documents related to both people who survived and people who do not.

Tips 3. Don’t Start With JewishGen

Jennifer cautiously stated that her third is to not START at JewishGen. JewishGen.org is a fantastic website that is crucial to the Jewish Genealogy community. However, many people just getting started in Jewish Genealogy try to use the site without success.

They only know that their grandfather’s name was Abraham Cohen, and he came from Russia. They immediately go to JewishGen and start searching for documents related to him. That’s a bad move.

Because JewishGen has so much information, you really need to hone in on your Abraham Cohen. For instance, if Abraham is from Russia, recognize that could also mean Belarus, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Poland.

Before you use Jewish Gen, do your homework in the country the ancestor immigrated. Get as much documentation as you can about them there. This includes going back to Tip #1 and talking to your relatives.

In the end, you might now Abraham Cohen was born in 1880 in Vilnius and that his mother’s name was Sarah Handelman. Then you can use JewishGen. You’ll find Abraham in Lithuania.

Again, JewishGen.org is amazing, but don’t start there.

Tip 4: Join a Jewish Facebook Group

There a few helpful groups on Facebook that can help researchers getting started in Jewish Genealogy which include: Tracing the Tribe and the Jewish Genealogy Portal.

Join the discussion through the Jewish Tracing the Tribe Facebook gorup.
Tracing the Tribe Facebook Group
Join the discussion on the Jewish Genealogy Portal Facebook group
Jewish Genealogy Portal Facebook Group

Both of those groups are filled with very helpful experienced volunteers who love to help newbies get started. They volunteer their time helping you when you have a just little bit of information to translate that into the next level of information.

Join the Jewish DNA for Genetic Genealogy and Family Research

If you’re interested in Jewish DNA, Jennifer is the administrator of the Jewish Genetic Genealogy group on Facebook. The group welcomes everyone to help deal with the problems specific to doing Jewish Genetic Genealogy.

To have a better experience in the Facebook groups, follow these guidelines:

  • Search the group before you post a question and read the FAQs
  • Post a question
  • Share what you know about your question

Regarding point one, 99% of the time, the questions that you’re asking have already been answered. If you would take the time to search the group or read the FAQs, you might find your answer and leave the volunteers free to focus on new questions.

Point two, don’t just post a random comment, such as “my DNA shows I’m two percent Jewish.” Volunteers don’t know what you want them to make of that comment. How does anyone help you with that?

Tell volunteers what you are looking to find. Were you expecting that 2% Jewish? Are you adopted and you’re learning you’re 2 % Jewish?

Finally, point three. When you post a query, remember to “help us, help you.” Give group members as much information as you know. A great example is, “I’m searching for Mr. Johan Goldberg, and he’s from Ukraine. I’ve looked in _ records. Where should I search next?”

That’s a better question. Volunteers want to know what you’ve already done. This information saves them time and it helps them strategize about how to help you know what you should do next.

Tip 5: Be careful with 2% Jewish Ethnicity

In some cases that 2% may, in fact, be quite real and reflect real Jewish ancestry. The problem is that many people don’t realize is that unlike a lot of other ethnicities, in most parts of Eastern Europe the paper record trail generally peters out around 1800.

If you’re talking about 1-2% ethnicity, you’re generally talking about an ancestor from before that time frame. Tracing their identity may be virtually impossible on paper.

It’s also possible that the 1% simply reflects statistical noise. Meaning, it’s not accurate. Don’t start planning your child’s Bar Mitzvah based on this 1% that you’ve discovered. Slow your roll a little bit, because it may not really be reflective.

There some people believe that the Jewish sequences are unique enough that even a small percentage is real, but Jennifer is a little bit nervous about saying for sure that they reflect something real.

Follow these tips for getting started researching your Jewish ancestry. Five tips to help increase your chances of success. #genealogy #Jewish #methodology
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Learn more about Jennifer Mendelsohn

Jennifer’s can help anyone just getting started in researching their Jewish Genealogy. If you want to contact Jennifer, visit her at:

For other interviews with experts, visit our RootsTech interview list. You’ll find links to previous interviews and know which videos will be coming out next. Click here.

Devon Noel Lee

Devon Noel Lee

Devon Noel Lee is passionate about capturing and preserving family stories so no one alive today has to be researched, or forgotten, tomorrow. She has authored 6 how-to books, a memoir, two published family history biographies, and over 60 family scrapbooks. She's an enthusiastic speaker who energizes, encourages, and educates at the same time.

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