29 May 2008

History's Mysteries: Jewish history classes

Jewish genealogy naturally encompasses Jewish and secular history. As we search for our ancestors, we begin to understand the overwhelming impact of history on each of our families.

No matter what time frame we are examining in pursuit of our ancestors, history dictated where they could live, what occupations they could follow, education opportunities, army service and all societal aspects.

Some researchers approach family history because they are first interested in history and how their family fitted into local and world events, while some researchers, never before interested in history - Jewish or otherwise - have found themselves drawn to this subject for the same goal.

During an introductory course in Jewish genealogy to a class of 8th-graders, I asked this question: You have millions of ancestors. What would have happened to you today, if even one of your ancestors had died before marriage? What would have happened if one had been killed in a war, or the ship they were traveling on had sunk in a storm?

When filling in for a teacher in our congregation's Hebrew School, we went around the room discussing each student's Hebrew name, what it meant, and who they were named after. They did rather well on this section. The next question was "And who was that person named after?" For the first time, it seemed, these 4th-grade student realized they were part of a chain of people named after their ancestors who were named after their ancestors, stretching back into time.

In both classes, we utilized a Jewish and secular history timeline. Where were their ancestors at any particular point? What was going on at the time? How were their ancestors impacted by historical events?

History provides context.

In Westchester, New York, there will be Jewish history programs at four locations in the fall, as detailed in this article.

Me'ah is a growing, intensive program on Jewish history founded at Boston's Hebrew College and now expanding throughout the Northeast. Weekly classes over two years bring the region's top Jewish scholars from colleges and seminaries to explain core Jewish texts from four major periods of Jewish history: biblical, rabbinic, medieval and modern.

While these classes won't give provide you with your individual family histories, it will help in putting genealogy in context with world events.

The program will be held at the Mid-Westchester JCC (Scarsdale), Temple Israel Center (White Plains), JCC-on-the-Hudson (Tarrytown) and Bet Torah Synagogue (Mount Kisco).

Try out an introductory class at 7.30pm, June 3 at the Mid-Westchester JCC and at 7pm, June 17 at Temple Shaaray Tefile (Bedford Corners).

The program started with two classes in Boston in 1994, with the goal of offering a rich Jewish history course for those whose religious education may have ended at age 12 or 13. Today, it is offered at 30 sites - Washington and Baltimore to Philadelphia and the New York City region - and has graduated 2,500 people. It is open to people from all Jewish backgrounds.

Weekly classes last almost three hours and add up to about 100 hours over two years. There are reading assignments each week, but no tests. And any classes that are missed can be watched on the Web. The cost is $995 per year plus about $300 for books. Scholarships are available.

Me’ah's more than 40 faculty members from such institutions as Columbia, the Jewish Theological Seminary, NYU, Rutgers, Hebrew Union College, the University of Pennsylvania, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Princeton University and Haverford College. Several faculty have presented programs at the annual international conferences of Jewish genealogy, such as Hasia Diner and Glenn Dynner. Sephardic studies are also represented in the work of some faculty, including:

Benjamin Gampel, author and teacher, specializes in the Jews of the medieval and early modern world. He received his PhD from Columbia University and is the Eli and Dinah Field Professor of Jewish History at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Dr. Gampel edited Crisis and Creativity in the Sephardic World (Columbia University Press; New Ed edition, 1998), which is an account of the international conference held in commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the expulsion of the Jews from the Kingdom of Castile and Aragon. At present, he is writing a book on the pogroms and forced conversions of 1391 in the Iberian Peninsula and the effects of those events on the course of Jewish history.

Read the details here. For information on other locations in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, click here.


  1. Schelly,

    I think you are exactly right. Genealogy is just an ancestor chart if you don't put each person into historical context. In fact, I would find collecting only names and dates extremely boring and probably wouldn't stick to it very long...it's learning how each of my ancestors fits into the historical context that I find so fascinating. Great post!

    Tim Agazio

  2. Hi, Tim,

    Thank you for writing. And thank you for your kind words.

    Best wishes