From Scepticism to Acceptance
The Genealogical Institute’s progress over the 13 years since its opening is encapsulated in a single event – an international conference on “Genealogy and the Sciences”, held at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel in December 2018 (click here).
That observation requires explanation. From the outset, the Institute’s primary goal was, and remains, to advance the status of Jewish Genealogy as a field for academic endeavour and as a legitimate branch of Jewish Studies. It should be remembered that when IIJG set out in 2006, genealogy –and, within that, Jewish Genealogy – tended to be dismissed by most scholars as little more than a tool or a method of limited utility to certain historians and social scientists. It was not seen to be a “discipline” in any sense. Indeed, its most disparaging critics probably have held that its place in the academic universe was somewhat akin to astrology vis-à-vis astronomy.
That then was the academic climate in which IIJG began its work. To advance its mission, it has devoted itself primarily to research and instruction at the university level – and it has taken a number of significant steps on its way forward, including:
- Since 2006, the Institute has launched and supported 20 innovative research projects (click here).
- As a matter of policy, it has consciously advanced and broadened the horizons of Jewish Genealogy, moving from the individual and his/her extended family, as in traditional genealogy, to a series of new levels. The trajectory, and the reference unit, has evolved progressively through the group level, the communal level, the societal level, the national level and, most recently, the Jewish Diaspora level. These projects have been completed successfully and most of them can be viewed here.
- It has elaborated detailed “Academic Guidelines” for BA and MA courses in Jewish Genealogy, giving shape and substance to them.
- It has presented inter-active maps of Jewish populations in Europe (1750-1930) for the use of family historians and others.
- It has developed advanced computerized technologies for the phonetic recognition of Jewish names and for the merging of genealogical databases.
- It has produced an unprecedented family tree of a national Jewry as a whole (Scottish Jewry).
- It has published a vast compendium of genealogical knowledge in the form of a 4-volume set, entitled “The Jacobi Papers: Genealogical Studies of Leading Ashkenazi Families”.
One form of academic recognition is active participation in international conferences of repute. In 2008 and 2009, panels proposed by IIJG were rejected by the organisers of an annual conference of a leading Jewish Studies association on the grounds that not sufficiently scientific, despite the fact that the presenters were senior academics with international reputations. Since then, and thanks we should like to think to IIJG’s activities, this attitude has changed and the Institute has established a regular presence at major international events, sponsoring sessions wholly dedicated to Jewish Genealogy. In this context, IIJG held a noteworthy Joint Symposium in 2012 with the Russian Institute for Genealogical Research at the National Library of Russia in St. Petersburg on “The Genealogy and Family History of Jews in Russia”.
Then, moving forward and somewhat tangentially, an international conference was held in December 2018 at the prestigious Weizmann Institute of Science on “Genealogy and the Sciences”. A group of over 30 prominent scholars spent two intense days exploring the interface between genealogy and the sciences, both “hard” and “soft”. Notably, no-one challenged the assumption that genealogy was a discipline in its own right or questioned whether the field has reached a level of maturity that merits serious attention by other scientific disciplines. In the realm of academic genealogy, that conference was a land-mark event by any standards. It demonstrated beyond all doubt that scholarly attitudes towards the study of genealogy have altered fundamentally in the last decade and a half.
IIJG and Jewish genealogy were deeply engaged in the Weizmann event, even though it was not focussed on Jewish genealogy as such. IIJG Chair, Dr. Neville Lamdan, acted as the Conference Co-Chair. A small IIJG exhibition on innovative Jewish Genealogy was prominently displayed. More importantly many, if not most, of the papers presented had a Jewish genealogical aspect or component. In brief, not only genealogy but also Jewish Genealogy had come of age. IIJG is proud to have contributed to that process.