Sue Isman emailed a volunteer wanting to help out at an upcoming conference on Jewish genealogy when, naturally, the conversation turned to family roots.
The pair shot information back and forth through cyberspace and soon determined they probably are distant cousins.
“I would say a significant number of people probably do find a relative or a connection in some way or another, or they confirm,” Isman, co-chairwoman of the International Association of Jewish Genealogists Society’s international conference, said of people who attend the annual event. “They roll out big family trees across the table and say, ‘OK, let’s figure this out.’”
More than 1,200 Jewish genealogists from around the world will gather in Washington, D.C., to track their family roots and learn researching techniques from Sunday through Aug. 19. The Jewish Genealogy Society of Greater Washington, located in Rockville, will host the 31st annual event.
The conference will feature 230 events, such as guest speakers — including Sara Bloomfield, director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and David Ferriero, archivist of the United States — panel sessions and computer workshops. All are offered in the name of connecting with the past.
“It’s part of me,” said Marlene Bishow, president of the Jewish Genealogy Society of Greater Washington and co-chair of the conference. “And I want to know that part of me.”
The genealogy bug bit Bishow at age 10 when a teacher told her to determine the eye color of all her family members. This helped open a dialogue between grandparent and grandchild about family history.
When people from 14 countries and 42 states gather Sunday to begin a six-day exploration of the past, the conversation will continue on a larger scale.
“It’s more like a family reunion,” Bishow said of the conference, “because people are kissing and hugging each other and catching up on the family and whatever is going on in other people’s lives. It’s like you’re seeing a cousin.”
Shared interest proves almost as strong a link as blood. Genealogists can discuss their hobby with other genealogists.
“There are things that we as genealogists can talk about with each other that will not make any sense to other people, nor will they have any interest,” Bishow said.
Of the people who attend, 21 percent consider themselves beginner genealogists, Isman said. Forty-four percent classify themselves as intermediate, and the remaining 35 percent call themselves experts.
Jewish genealogy is often difficult to trace, Isman said, because Jews did not always have last names.
In the late 18th century, some European countries forced people to get last names in order to count and tax them, she said. So finding information prior to 1790 is not easy.
“It makes it difficult to trace family when you’re David, the son of Joseph,” Isman said.
But the D.C. area offers some missing pieces. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in the District keeps International Tracing Service records. The database includes digitalized records of postcards, letters, pictures and more from World War II. A location in Germany contains the original documents and Washington is the only U.S. city with copies of the records. Conference participants can arrange a trip to sift through the database — a solid, but incomplete, database.
“There are some things that are missing and probably never will be found,” Isman said.
The event, held at the Grand Hyatt Washington, costs more than $250,000 to host, Bishow said. This will be the sixth time it has been held in the District; the last time was in 2003. The conference has been in London, Toronto and Los Angeles, among other places.
People usually attend annually, Bishow said.
Early conference registration ended July 31, but people can sign up on site for $340 for the whole week, or between $50 and $120 per day, depending on the day.
And as much as people can learn at the event, it all comes down to the story.
“You hear a lot of stories,” Isman said. “You could probably stop anyone in the conference and say, ‘Tell me about your grandfather.’”