02 April 2008

JewishGen: How it all began

Readers who are new to Jewish genealogy may think that JewishGen has been around forever. There was a time when JewishGen did not exist, although we barely remember those days.

Here's an article providing the details of how it all began. Every worthwhile endeavor begins with the creative spark of an inspired individual - Susan King provided that spark and lit a veritable fire. She provided a gathering point for thousands upon thousands of people around the world who wanted to research their Jewish families.

In 2004, Genealogical Computing magazine carried an excellent story about Jewishgen founder Susan E. King, It described her background, how she had become involved in genealogy and the journey that resulted in JewishGen.

Authored by Barbara Krasner-Khait, it is archived here.

Susan E. King: Founder of JewishGen

When I was growing up, I felt like the last person on the block to join in,” says New Orleans native and Texas transplant Susan E. King, founder of the popular Internet home of Jewish genealogy, JewishGen. Susan had always wanted to do something different, but she says, “Most attempts were failures. I wasn't always able to pull it off.”

That pattern changed when the marketing communications entrepreneur joined her parents on a visit to a Galveston Jewish cemetery. During that trip, she learned her family migrated from Spain to Courland (now in present-day Latvia) and that subsequent family members then arrived in the Americas through Veracruz, Mexico, and New Orleans, eventually settling in Galveston.

King and her parents tried to find family in the cemetery but were unsuccessful. They went to see a cousin, a 92-year-old woman, who told them the correct cemetery was just two blocks away. In that cemetery, King discovered a huge obelisk with eight or nine burials. One of the tombstones was for her great-grandfather, born in “Reggae” (Riga), Kurland. She consulted a map but couldn't find “Reggae.”

The next day, while giving a marketing communications presentation to a major Texas-based oil company, she related the story about the cemetery visit with her parents. A man sitting at the conference table said, “You might want to get involved in genealogy.” He scribbled some extensive notes on a sheet of paper and placed it in her pocket. Later she realized he had outlined how she could get started in genealogy. He counseled her to sign onto the National Genealogy Conference Bulletin Board.

The Birth of JewishGen

When King first developed an interest in genealogy, she was running her own marketing communications company and was looking for a hobby. She became fascinated with computers and bought herself one of the first IBM “luggables.”

King participated in the National Genealogy Conference Bulletin Board for two or three years. She asked a lot of questions. She had exhausted all the knowledge other participants had but still had unanswered questions. She thought about how nice it would be to have a specific Jewish forum. She says, “I wasn't crossing the pond.”

She wanted to set herself up as an echo. She configured her computer and in a few months, she started a Jewish genealogy echo. She quickly had 30 to 40 regular users. When an unwanted religious faction bought into the echo, King decided to pay to move hers into an Israeli bulletin board. She began using the Internet to initiate a mailing list. To make the forum more accessible, she offered a bulletin board, e-mail, and newsgroup options.

JewishGen began about 1987 on the Fidonet bulletin board circuit and quickly segued to the Internet in 1989–90 to a mailing list, making the forum more accessible to individuals all over the world. In fact, JewishGen was one of the first genealogy websites to allow text-based e-mail searches of data, including the precursor to the current Yizkor Book database, early data from Russian Era Indexing of Poland Project (REIPP, now Jewish Records Indexing or JRI-Poland), and the JGFF (then the Jewish Genealogy Family Finder).

King says of JewishGen at this early time, “We were hobbyists, but we formed an informal, executive-type committee.” The “we” includes Bernie Kouchel, Warren Blatt, Gary Mokotoff, King, and others.

Although the JewishGen website began to witness an exponential rise in visits, says King, “We did not have a clue to the enormity of what we were doing until the mid-to-late nineties.”

The site's impact hit the unassuming innovator, oddly enough, far away from home in Krakow, Poland. JewishGen had done some work for the Oswiecim (Auschwitz) Museum and was in the process of building JewishGen Shtetlshleppers, a travel program to visit ancestral towns in Eastern Europe, with new destinations and partners. While in the old part of Krakow, King entered a synagogue. A woman there spoke initially in French and then switched to English. She was on a business trip with her husband. She asked King who she was with. King explained, and the woman told her that she and her husband log onto JewishGen every morning—from France. To King, this was a telling tale. JewishGen had impact all over the world and in ways she could never have imagined.

She characterizes JewishGen as the “first bringing together of the Jewish people since we left Egypt. This was the first time Jews had a place to come together—no matter what their personal religious beliefs or practice.”

JewishGen has grown organically with a free-spirited attitude toward development. Says King, “When we first started, we had no model. We created as we went.” If someone offered an idea, she and her team thought about whether it could be done. The site gets more than 4.5 million hits a month.

Despite its popularity, the site has not grown slick or commercial. The focus is constantly on the end-user experience. King says, “We keep it simple on purpose, so users can get to where they want to go.”

A Mission to Live By

What sets JewishGen apart from other genealogical informational and transactional websites, says King, is that it has “held steadfast to its mission and has never wobbled.”

JewishGen's goal is to ensure that Jewish lives, both past and present, woven into the fabric of social and cultural history, rise again from the ashes of the destroyed communities. To this end, JewishGen is determined as well as dedicated to do whatever it takes to ensure it preserves Jewish history for future generations.

Because the mission is so broadly stated, opportunities for site expansion and development are wide. Still, King admits that not all ideas turn into reality. “Some people think we should be all things to all people,” says King. That would not be true to the mission or to financial capabilities. JewishGen relies on the voluntary financial support of its thousands of daily users.

Although she's been at the helm, King claims she has always been fortunate to have a great crew and outstanding working relationships, especially in light of the fact that JewishGen's staff members are based all over the world.

“JewishGen is a team effort,” she says. “I've allowed people to excel. I push them to the limits.” In the early days, they communicated by e-mail. Each staff member is focused, creative, and pitches in to offer something valuable.

Aside from the salaried staff, JewishGen relies on about 700 volunteers worldwide. More than 1,200 people contribute to the site's data sources. Yet with all this active volunteerism, JewishGen continues to face a challenge.

Merger with the Museum of Jewish Heritage

On 31 December 2002, JewishGen publicly announced its new relationship with the Museum of Jewish Heritage—A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. King viewed this as a necessary step to accommodate the website's future growth and financial requirements. The museum took over the daily business operational needs including administration and finance, communications and public relations, human resources and volunteer management, and fundraising.

As a result of the announcement, Susan King was named Managing Director of JewishGen, a position through which she continues to oversee the day-to-day operations and serve as the conduit for new projects and programs.

Innovation Click

Susan King may have been the last on her block to join in. Maybe she was biding her time. With JewishGen, King allows her interests in computing, genealogy, and creative marketing to blend. She says, “It was something that just clicked. I was in the right place at the right time with the right interest.”

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous10:31 AM

    Does anyone know why she was replaced?

    Susan is an exceptional person, she changed jewish genealogy for good.