(JNS) — Through meticulous research, Leigh Dworkin helped his cousin Stacey identify people in family photographs she owned. Now the two meet regularly in London, where he lives, and New Jersey, where she lives, during meetings of the International Conference of Jewish Genealogy, which Dworkin co-chairs.
Traipsing through the bulging corridors at London’s Park Plaza Hotel Westminster Bridge earlier this month at the conference’s 43rd iteration, it was clear that many of the 400 attendees, who skewed older, had personal stories connected to their heritage.
“The International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies has been instrumental in making genealogy accessible to a worldwide audience, and we were excited to bring it to the U.K.,” Dworkin told JNS.
The conference usually convenes in the United States, but it ventured across the Atlantic this year to London, a city with deep-rooted Jewish history.
“Our last U.K. conference was in 2001,” Dworkin said. “I’m sure a future conference will be in Europe, but no one knows when yet.”
In London, attendees had opportunities to learn about the Jewish heritage of their ancestors through discussions about DNA analysis and specific Jewish communities. Some events were held in the city’s East End, once home to a thriving Jewish community.
Nicholas Evans, a senior lecturer in Jewish Diaspora history at the University of Hull in England, called the conference his “personal highlight of the genealogical calendar because they bring together academics of Jewish history with both professional genealogists and those passionate about discovering every facet of their family’s history.”
As the online genealogy craze continues to boom, with Ancestry dot com estimating that 30 million people worldwide have now taken a DNA test, Evans stressed the value of personal dialogue.
“As an academic, the conference enabled me to cascade the fruits of my research career with genealogists from around the world. I even made friends who will help my academic research,” he told JNS.
“This is incredibly important because, in the case of migrant history, stories preserved within families provide important clues often missing from official sources,” he added.
Evans told JNS that he spoke to one person whose parent was a migrant stranded in the United Kingdom a century ago when U.S. quotes curtailed Eastern European immigration to America.
Other attendees had records detailing their families’ movements to the United Kingdom, South Africa, the United States, Canada and Australia. Some had already used online databases to understand their ancestors’ experiences emigrating from imperial Russia a century ago.
“It was lovely to catch up with dear friends I’d met at earlier IAJGS conferences in London, Paris, Jerusalem, New York, Boston and Chicago,” Evans said, “most of whom I’ve not seen since COVID-19 changed all our lives.”
Dworkin told JNS that artificial intelligence-driven tools and DNA analysis are impacting contemporary genealogical research.
“AI tools have taken strides in generating narratives and deciphering records in various languages, while DNA analysis advancements have facilitated the exploration of heritage and family connections,” he said.
He noted that Marlis Humphrey, CEO and president of L’Dor V’Dor Foundation, delivered a “rousing” speech on the ways that artificial intelligence can help preserve and understand documents.
At the conference, computer labs were on hand to connect attendees to scores of genealogical databases, and experts wandered up and down rows of seats answering queries from attendees.
Unraveling the past, shaping the future
Mark Nicholls, a photographer, told JNS that he appreciated the “friendly and knowledge-rich environment,” where conversations over meals and drinks combined casual and expert discussions.
Anne Marcus, another attendee, told JNS about the extensive “expertise packed into just a few days.” A session on DNA was a standout for her.
“Until now, I have struggled to fully understand how best to interpret DNA matches,” Marcus said. The speaker told a story that “just clicked with me,” she added. “I will now look at my DNA results with renewed enthusiasm and a greater understanding.”
The event also included site visits to important Jewish venues, including London’s Sephardic congregation Bevis Marks Synagogue — the oldest in continuous use in the United Kingdom — and a display of more than 1,500 Czech Torah scrolls rescued during the Holocaust on view at Westminster Synagogue.