New web site aims at reuniting Jewish people

The giant digital family tree on the Famillion Web site already contains some 45,000 family trees.

jworld 224 88 (photo credit:
jworld 224 88
(photo credit:
There's an old joke among rabbis that on Purim Katan (the "Little Purim" added to the Jewish calendar on leap years, such as this one), all Jews in the world are united in fulfilling the halacha of not saying the Tahanun ("supplication") prayer. It is, the joke goes, the only mitzva that unites all Jews everywhere - even those who don't know they're Jewish - making it a ray of light in the darkness of Jewish disunity. While rabbis may not be chosen for their sense of humor, as this joke indicates, it is nevertheless true that few things unite the world's disparate Jewish communities today. But now, if the work of a handful of Israeli entrepreneurs bears fruit, there may be something else entirely that will unite world Jewry. The Famillion company, an Israeli start-up, is building a giant digital family tree that will eventually link every Jew, their non-Jewish relatives and - if things go as planned - all of humanity. The initiative is the brainchild of Danny Rolls, who co-founded Famillion with Iphtach Cohen, a computer expert and former IAF pilot. The project is straightforward, the execution nearly complete, and the potential revolutionary. The idea was born eight years ago, "when my wife, a researcher at the Weizmann Institute [of Science in Rehovot], dragged me to get genetic tests," Rolls says. "I had to create my family tree for the geneticist, and I suddenly had a vision that my tree was sitting in the geneticist's drawer with all these other trees, and if they linked up they would eventually connect the whole world." It took five years for the vision of networked family trees to turn into something useable, its development driven by research papers Danny and Asya Rolls read at Weizmann in bioinformatics - how computing systems handle data about biological systems - and graph theory, which studies the depiction of mathematical relationships. The result is a Web site, in English and Hebrew versions ( and, in which users can build their family trees using a simple graphical interface. You just drag your family members around the screen. There's nothing new, however, in a graphical family tree program. What's new here, the program's real power, is an underlying technology that can recognize similarities in trees, and merge corresponding sections of completely independent trees. "It notices structures of relationships," says Danny Rolls. A relatively small number of trees, which include different branches of families and confirm different relationships each time, can link vast numbers of people in a network as complex as human families themselves. There is a "tipping point," according to Rolls, when the database will include enough family trees to begin to link up the entire Jewish people through its automated algorithms. "We haven't yet arrived at the tipping point for the Jewish world, which we estimate at 100,000 families in Israel and 200,000 families in the Diaspora." The program currently contains some 45,000 family trees, mostly in Israel. "We've been getting a few hundred a week, but that recently rose to thousands," said Rolls. The company expects to reach critical mass in six months. The program won't just connect families in Hebrew or English, but can link between the two databases, recognizing the Hebrew nickname "Itzik" as a variant of "Isaac" and the Hebrew "Ya'acov" with "Jacob." Already the program has started integrating existing databases. A researcher of hassidic families, Shlomo Goldstein, who has spent decades mapping hundreds of very large hassidic families back to the 17th century, has joined with Famillion to connect his database to theirs. The integration is nearly completed. Just last week, Famillion discussed with Yad Vashem officials starting a pilot project to input a small database of Jews lost in the Holocaust into the program to see what can be learned from its program. "Yad Vashem's database sometimes has people who appear in six different camps before they were killed, but [researchers] can't identify with certainty that it's the same person. Our algorithms can help them complete the picture, or to find the connection," says Rolls. Famillion is also working with Beit Hatefutsoth (the Nahum Goldmann Museum of the Jewish Diaspora) in Tel Aviv, which will link its information on 3,000 Jewish communities and 100,000 names to the Famillion database. Rolls says his project is intimately connected with Jewish history and identity. "If someone says a great-grandmother came from Saloniki or Teheran, he will be able to access the story of the Jewish communities in Saloniki and Teheran. If their last name is Schwartz, they will be able to learn what it means. It strengthens the Jewish connection." In keeping with the original inspiration, once the database is more complete, Famillion will be able to offer tools for medical risk assessment through the genetic history and described lifestyle of a person. According to Rolls, "There is an advantage to the 'large pedigree' - the connections across different family trees, where the system can find phenomena in large groups. It allows prevention of all sorts of diseases, from cancers of different types, heart and lung diseases, glaucoma and more." Won't such a database need a stringent privacy policy? "We took this issue very seriously, because people give personal information," says Rolls. "We installed in the system a function called darma, which in Hindi means 'respecting boundaries.' "Basically, every user can decide what to share - whether it's a connection to someone or something they write about themselves. When trees are merged into other trees, the user can decide what to connect and what to show once it's connected. Then you can share files, pictures and add other users to a [mailing] list that will receive stories you write about yourself." Eventually, Rolls hopes Famillion will become a "Familipedia," which will tell the story of the Jewish people through the interlinked web of family stories joined together as communities. "If families are willing to share their stories with the public," he says, "we can create the Jewish people [on-line]."