Friday, October 07, 2005


Tonight, on the Sabbath of the high holy days, it seems appropriate that the "charity of the day" should be JewishGen. While the lion's share of our charitable giving goes toward "solving the world's problems", I think it's also important to give some amount to cultural organizations. My own interest in genealogy has significantly deepened in recent years, and in that process I've made use of a variety of services and resources, and joined a variety of historical and genealogical societies. Of the many resources and organizations I've encountered, one of the most impressive is JewishGen, which is indisputably the premier online resource for Jewish genealogy. Among their services:

  • several dozen mailing lists serving 25,000 subscribers posting tens of thousands of items each year
  • an information-rich website of over 20,000 pages handling millions of hits per month
  • the Jewishgen Family Finder, with hundreds of thousands of entries, helping people connect with distant cousins and other researchers with common interests
  • the ShtetLinks project, hosting hundreds of websites each devoted to a specific ancestral village
  • numerous specialized databases containing millions of records

And that's not nearly the whole megillah.

JewishGen's stated mission is to "gather, document, and preserve our research, and make it available to the Jewish community worldwide as a public service". In this I think they succeed admirably. But I think that beyond that, they foster a community and perpetuate a culture. Since subscribing to JewishGen over a year ago, I have learned so much, not only about the specifics of my own family tree, but about Jewish culture and history in general, from misty geographies of centuries past (featuring countries like Galicia, Bessarabia, and Bukovina) to the struggles of our grandparents as they migrated from place to place (through stories and photos shared by their grandchildren). I have become more aware of the Jewish calendar of holidays, and improved through practice my Hebrew "decoding" skills. In addition to a modest financial contribution each year, I have also been able to contribute both research and website development by writing an article on the genealogical value of a 19th-century book-publishing business model called "pre-subscription lists", and by adopting a "shtetl" (ancestral village) in present-day Ukraine called Makhnovka that may or may not be connected to my great-grandfather's still-obscure origins.

Unlike most genealogical and historical societies, which operate on annual membership dues, JewishGen offers all of its services without charge and operates entirely on donations. It's difficult to apply the usual financial assessments to an organization like this. An examination of IRS filings shows that JewishGen spends 47% of their budget on program expenses, with 51% going to management, and under 2% to fundraising. For a typical charitable organization, these would be pretty poor proportions, but in looking at the details of this case, it seems reasonable. Consider that the total budget is only a few hundred thousand (as compared to, say, the $100+ million budget of ADRA), so it's not unreasonable to expect that a quarter of that goes to the salaries of the 5 full-time employees, and another quarter goes to maintaining an office (including telephone and travel). The "hard" expenses of the program budget are mostly Internet access and computer server maintenance (which at the volume they're serving these days requires some real money). What's missed entirely in a superficial look at these numbers is that the office and handful of paid staffers are coordinating and enabling the efforts of over a thousand volunteers, and all of the time, research, information development, and intellectual property that is contributed. Were all of these "intangibles" somehow valued and included on the revenue and expense statement, the proportions would look quite different. Thus, I'm quite content with the organizational efficiency of this group. Likewise, an impressive track record demonstrating their organizational capacity can be seen in the growth in all dimensions of service provided.

If you have any Jewish roots, you really ought to check out this invaluable web resource. And if it helps you find a distant cousin, or locate or learn more about your great-grandmother's village in the "old country", or deepen your knowledge and appreciation of our cultural history, please consider making a donation to support them.

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