A slide from “Finding your Family” at the EVJCC

Studying genealogy is a way of holding a mirror up to the past, and for a growing number of people it is a fascinating — yet time-consuming — hobby. Capitalizing on the zeitgeist, the East Valley Jewish Community Center is hosting “Finding your Family,” a six-week class running Jan. 6-Feb. 10, via Zoom.

This course is not a run-of-the-mill genealogy class, however. Its primary focus is connecting participants to their Jewish heritage.

Rabbi Michael Beyo, CEO of EVJCC, has been passionate about genealogy for years. He found some assistance recently when he met sisters Elizabeth (Lisa) Lee and Loretta (Lorrie) Walker, who, though not Jewish themselves, specialize in helping people trace their Jewish ancestry with their company, Daughters of Jacob Genealogy. The sisters put together a family book for Beyo, and although he had already completed extensive research on his own, the research done by Lee and Walker filled in several gaps.

“What they were able to provide us was additional information which I was not aware of, but also documented confirmation of some of our earlier speculations,” said Beyo. “The final research and packaging which they have done has become a family heirloom. It is full of details, pictures, narrative, documents and more.”

Though the EVJCC held other genealogy classes and workshops in the past, this is the first one taught by the Daughters of Jacob. Lee and Walker were originally scheduled to teach a session at the Klezmer Fest last March, but the event was canceled due to the pandemic.

The six-week class introduces attendees to available tools for researching their Jewish family histories. Lee and Walker teach students how to use the tools, but ultimately the goal is to let people take the lead in their own story.

Lee has been interested in genealogy for most of her life. “It seems in every family, there is somebody who keeps the stories; it’s just who I am,” she said. 

She became intrigued by Jewish family research when she took on the project for Beyo.

Though research on any family tree can be tricky, particularly if not starting out with a lot of information, Jewish genealogy in particular presents unique challenges.

“Jewish research is more difficult because the borders change so much over the years, and records aren’t good,” said Lee.

Other challenges include name changes and language barriers.

“Sometimes, the governments would not let the kids have the father’s last name because they were trying to limit the Jewish population,” Lee said.

And if a family went through the Holocaust, the process is even more difficult. Not only are records sometimes unavailable, but Lee said that the stories can be emotionally difficult to sift through.

Still, she values “preserving history for the next generation so they can see the courage of the people in front of them,” she said.

With so many genealogy resources on the internet, people can easily be

overwhelmed. The class led by Lee and Walker tries to pare down available information into digestible bites.

Perhaps it’s the effect of having been shuttered indoors for almost a year, but the genealogy hobby is taking off.

“It’s fun. It’s a mystery; it’s like a jigsaw puzzle, but a hundred times better,” said Lee. “And it’s relaxing and something to do during COVID. With the stresses of our world today, it’s a healthy escape and a way to work on something that is not mindless.”

And having a multitude of websites available on the internet in addition to DNA testing, makes the process easier.

“In a modern world, where we are connected with others through pixels on a screen, we realize how much we need to know our history and memory to establish a sense of self,” said Beyo.

In a way, Beyo added, Judaism is obsessed with history, memory and genealogy.

“We play ‘Jewish geography’ as soon as we meet another person,” he said. “We have a deep-rooted need to be part of something bigger that has meaning and value. Family histories are one way in a disconnected and moral relativist world to give meaning to who we are.” JN