Linking on to family history

Seventh-grade family tree projects are standard in most Israeli schools, with technology of the future helping students delve into their past.

shorashim graph 88 298 (photo credit: )
shorashim graph 88 298
(photo credit: )
Taya Oberbaum, 13, recently discovered that her mother's aunt, author and Israel Prize recipient Amalia Cahana-Carmon, was a descendent of the Ba'al Shem Tov, the founder of Hassidism. She also found out that another hassidic leader, the Rebbe of Kotzk, is an ancestor of her father, Dr. Menahem Oberbaum. "When I did my roots project, I discovered many facts that I was unaware of, starting with the names of my great-grandparents," says Oberbaum. Seventh graders throughout Israel, usually of bar-mitzva or bat-mitzva age, work on a roots project for a few months during the school year. They conduct research under the guidance of teachers in order to connect to their past. Thus, during their milestone year, they encounter the various circles to which they belong: family, community and the Jewish people. They present a project complete with text, photos and family trees about their family's history, going back for as many generations as they can glean information. Sometimes facts are added about the country of origin or unique community customs. Parents often get involved by providing information, referring to sources and helping with the technicalities of production. Oberbaum of the Kelman high school in Ramat Hasharon will be one of 28 finalists in the first Digital Roots Contest in memory of Ilan Ramon. It will be held in Tel Aviv on June 15, in the presence of Ramon's widow, Rona. Ilan Ramon, Israel's first astronaut, whose 2003 Columbia mission ended in tragedy for him and his six crewmates, took artifacts to space linking him to his past as a Jew and Israeli, including a miniature Torah scroll from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. He became a symbol of the Israeli drawing strength for the present and future by connecting to the past. This contest parallels the annual competition held by the Diaspora Museum - the difference being presentation. All the projects are presented in digitalized form and written via the Internet using the Digital Roots program. The Internet brings together people from all parts of the globe, especially youth and young adults. "At one time, families lived near each other. Today, they live all over the world. Today's children are disconnected from their past. If it weren't for the Internet, staying connected would be very different," says Zur Chen, 32, a software development expert who created Digital Roots. Chen is the founder of the Mishpuhe sites with services for the family including online family documentation with albums, family milestones, recipe books and more. Digital Roots (, an offshoot of Mishpuhe, was created after teachers and students created digitalized family research projects and family trees through Mishpuhe. Throughout the country, some 40 schools with 3,500 students participate in Digital Roots. Entire seventh-grade classes subscribe to the program for one school term. The Jerusalem municipality has so far enrolled some 1,000 subscribers. In addition to the Hebrew, English and French versions, the program's Arabic version is used by Arab students in Jerusalem, Ramle and Lod. Each student receives a user account with utility tools to create an autobiographical project. The program can generate family trees, an information center, photo/video albums, recipes and an events calendar. The site also includes links to sources and articles about genealogy. Students have access to the 100 terms developed by the Education Ministry to implement the Shenhar and Kremnitzer reports on education toward Jewish, Zionist and democratic values. For example, if the youth refers in the project to his bar-mitzva celebration, a link explains the meaning of bar-mitzva. A special service from sends a daily term to registered users, with links to other sites for more information on the term. The program, authorized by the Education Ministry and the Karev program for educational involvement, enables the teacher to keep track of students' progress at any stage, whether in school or at home. Teachers and principals receive a monthly report about sections that are missing. Chen is developing a "smart agent" that will send weekly reminders about missing sections and the student's work. The student receives support via the Internet for the entire year. "Today's education emphasizes the importance of how to find information. Through Digital Roots, students learn to use databases and utilize search engines on a high level," says Chen. "The teacher's role is still necessary to teach writing skills and provide guidance on how to present the project in a personal way." Oberbaum interviewed relatives, conducted research via the Internet and went to the Diaspora Museum to find out about the surnames, discovering that Oberbaum is a unique name. Although she is the fourth child in her family, she did not use material from her siblings' projects as some students are tempted to do. "She was very thorough and took it upon herself to conduct all the research and writing," says Oberbaum's mother, Yael. "I assisted her with technical aspects like finding photographs and driving her places. She discovered information that was new to me. Some was painful, like about my husband's relatives who perished in the Holocaust," she says. Yael Oberbaum appreciates the fact that Digital Roots helped Maya through the various stages of the project, while the teacher was able to follow up on her daughter's progress. "Digital Roots offers guidance questions," notes the seventh grader. "It made it easier for me to organize the material according to topics. I focused more on the content and not on the technical aspect of organizing the material. The program helped create the final presentation." Digital Roots is user-friendly with a virtual guide explaining how to use all software utilities and produce a presentation or export the project to MS-Word. Many students have a digital camera or scanner for photographs. Some use multimedia by including videos, links or opening up other screens. Fourth graders familiarize themselves with the program for basic family projects, while high school age students present projects about "My City." Finalist Gal Lapid of the Yovel School in Rosh Ha'ayin is pleased with the final result, both the content and the presentation. She interviewed her parents and grandparents about the family and conducted Internet research about places. "Among the many things I learned was more details about my grandfather, Yehezkel Cohen, who fought in the Six Day War." She had known previously about Iraq, her maternal grandparents' country of origin, but very little about Switzerland, where her paternal grandparents hail from. She conducted research about Switzerland and devoted many pages to this in the project. She also told the story with photos about a set of silverware, a family heirloom from her great-grandparents. Contest judges include Education Ministry and Karev Program supervisors, genealogists and computer experts. The final projects are judged on such criteria as design and language usage, the scope of content, variety of resources, originality and personal tone. Students and teachers are also able to vote online. For next year, Chen plans to expand the contest to Diaspora communities. He will start with Jewish communities in the United Kingdom. As apt for a contest concerning the family's history, this year's first prize is a family vacation. Leafing through family trees Our descendants will have no excuses regarding a lack of information about their ancestors thanks to the archival resources available today, many of them accessible via the Internet. Databases of family trees help extend the wider family and link people around the world with the click of a mouse. The Mishpuhe website ( has a vast database with hundreds of thousands of people, including thousands of Israeli families who have created their own family websites. Some of the family trees go back as far as the 17th century and even prior. "The users of Mishpuhe's tools are both expert genealogists and laymen who set up a family site by utilizing the simple tools the program offers to create family trees," explains Zur Chen, Mishpuhe's founder. The trees include many details such as birthdays, death dates, anniversaries, maiden names, addresses, countries of origin and more. "Anybody can conduct a search for free on the basis of the first name and surname to find other family members," notes Chen. If a user is working on his family tree, the program can identify whether other users who are online are somehow connected to this tree. If the program identifies a new user as belonging to this family tree, a message is sent about the new family member. In this way, families learn about distant branches of their family and extend their family tree. In addition to the family trees, a database with more than 7,000 first names and surnames has been set up over the past three years. In the future, one will be able to learn the meaning of the names through the database. Teachers in need of creative ideas for their students conducting roots projects or for ways to enhance bar/bat mitzva celebrations participate in a forum on Mishpuhe. Other forums are for specific genealogical searches, including for people considered as missing. The Mishpuhe website even organizes family gatherings (real, not virtual) for those interested. Authentic personalized family trees that can be given as gifts and framed are designed and produced by Shorashim Family Mementoes ( Founder and director Eli Goren and his staff receive pertinent background information from websites that deal with genealogical documenting like Mishpuhe and from those who don't work online. Photographs and graphics enhance the family tree, making it a memorable gift for milestone events. "We change the focus of the tree to suit the person who is celebrating," says Goren. Genealogical findings 'Take a tape recorder with you to every family simcha," advises Chana Furman, president of the Israel Genealogical Society (IGS). "Conversely, photograph every tombstone of family members. This way, you collect important information about your family." Younger people are often too busy raising children and earning a living to research their family's past. "If someone wants to devote time to genealogy, he should see how much time he can set aside for this. A good starting place is to review old letters and photographs. Sometimes a life story can be built around this," says Furman. Jerusalem history teacher Esther Ramon founded the IGS in 1983. She became interested in her own roots after assisting her students with their roots projects. After spreading the message to her friends, the IGS started with meetings in Jerusalem, with members coming from all over Israel. Today the IGS has 170 members with branches in Jerusalem, the Negev (Omer), Netanya, Tel Aviv and Haifa. Special Interest Groups (SIGs) concentrate on geographical areas, for example, Sephardic, Eretz Israel and Anglo-Jewish. Although members are usually interested in uncovering their own roots, they attend the general lectures and SIG discussions in the hope of gaining more information that can help their personal search. The IGS website has details about its lectures in Hebrew or English ( June is Genealogy Month in Jerusalem with weekly workshops intended for beginners, as well as for those already hooked. One workshop deals with using the Internet and genealogical software for family research. Furman gives an example of using the Internet with Yad Vashem's online database ( With its 3,000,000 names of Holocaust victims, the Yad Vashem database has helped many families extend their family trees. "Even if you have a family tree, you should search on the Yad Vashem database for Testimony Pages about the same name given in by other people. One can then try to contact them or, if they're deceased, try to reach their family members to find more connections." The IGS belongs to the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies and holds conferences and annual study days. (The next study day will be in November 2006 in Givatayim.) It also publishes the Sharsheret Hadorot journal four times a year. The IGS also focuses on Sephardic communities. At its last conference, more than a quarter of the lectures dealt with Sephardic communities in the Mediterranean Basin. Furman mentions the recent passing of IGS member Benjamin (Wald) Yaari of Holon, who as a youth survived the Holocaust. He restored and documented old Jewish cemeteries in Poland that were destroyed during the Holocaust. Thanks to his inspiration, many Israeli high school students visited the cemeteries of Poland and the Ukraine and volunteered to copy the inscriptions from tombstones, whether complete or fragmented. Twenty-two books were published in Hebrew, English and Polish based on these tombstones. He also included informative essays written by local people about the cemeteries. The books are to go on JewishGen, the primary Internet source connecting researchers of Jewish genealogy worldwide with discussion groups, links and databases.