Cookie Samuels of Rockaway always thought her family came from Russia. Turns out she was wrong.
Research that she and many of her fellow congregants conducted as part of a roots program at Adath Shalom revealed some surprises; for Samuels, it was that her forebears were actually from Ukraine.
And now 110 of these families’ names are linked with strings to their countries of origin on a giant vinyl map hanging in the synagogue social hall. The eight-foot-square map, created by graphic designer and synagogue administrator Laurie Lindner, offers a colorful illustration of Adath Shalom lineage.
Roots Seekers, as the year-long project at the Conservative synagogue in Morris Plains is known, has given congregants a chance to “reignite long-buried information about our ancestors to pass along and keep alive for another generation,” Samuels said.
She and Ellen Muraskin of Morris Plains, cochairs of the Lifelong Learning Committee at Adath Shalom, conceived and executed the program together.
They kicked off the year with a talk by Susan Kobren, president of the Jewish Genealogical Society of North Jersey, based in Wayne, and a hands-on workshop led by Muraskin. The map was unveiled in December during a conversation with Arielle Kaden, a member and student at Johns Hopkins University who has traveled to Eastern Europe and the sites of former Jewish communities and has a blog about shtetl life.
Other aspects of synagogue programming through the year have been enhanced by and/or incorporated into the program, from the annual teen trip to New York’s Lower East Side and the religious school’s Family Heirloom Museum project, to the Holocaust education committee’s trip to Europe in July (see sidebar).
Over the course of the year, Arthur Gertzman, president of the Gombin Jewish Historical & Genealogical Society (for descendants of the Polish town of Gombin), spoke about Poland’s relationship with the Jews. Additionally, Chaim Lauer of West Orange, who served as executive director of the Jewish Education Association of MetroWest (the forerunner to The Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ) and is now president and CEO of HCL Resources, Inc. in West Orange, offered insights into the immigration experience.
The project will culminate in October with a Coming to America festival that will include a simulation of arriving on Ellis Island; a Lower East Side tenement facade; and foods, music, and activities associated with the early-20th-century immigrant experience. “It’s about the great transitional moment when people from there allowed us to become the people from here,” said Muraskin.
While Samuels keeps index cards with information she’s gathered on her ancestors through the years, Muraskin had just finished a year of her own personal genealogy exploration that included a trip to her family’s places of origin in Europe. So when she and Samuels were throwing around ideas with the synagogue’s Rabbi Moshe Rudin about themes for the upcoming year, Muraskin “had roots on the brain,” she said in a recent phone conversation.
“The point is looking at our history in Europe in the Pale of Settlement and realizing that we are living the same distances [from friends] and in similar relationships as our ancestors. OK, our houses are bigger and we are different in some ways but the crazy, amazing thing is the translation of life — we identify the same. Our heart is the same. We’re trying to sensitize people to that. It has become a passion for us,” said Rudin.
After all these families traveled halfway around the world, he pointed out, many are back where they started from in some ways. As it turned out, Lindner’s family came from Lodz, as did Samuels’s. Which made Samuels say, “I wonder if our grandparents knew each other.”