While studying abroad in Russia one semester, Stephanie Wright had no clue why people kept asking her if she had Russian heritage. Wright, who was born in Oregon and was enrolled at Brigham Young University-Idaho at the time, and was a practicing Mormon, had been told by her family that her ancestors were from Norway. Still, she admits, she felt an unusual sense of “being at home” while in Russia.
Now she knows why.
The results of a DNA test Wright took while tracing her family tree for a college class in 2012 left her “speechless.”
“The test came back mostly Ashkenazi,” 25 percent compared with only 20 percent Norwegian, said Wright, who is now at Chatham University getting her master’s in food studies.
“I didn’t know what to do with the results,” she said.
Wright, whose parents had never married and who had been raised by her maternal grandmother, called AncestryDNA, which had done the DNA analysis, to confirm the results.
“They said, ‘Yes, there is definitely a Jew at your table,’” Wright recalled.
Having grown up without really knowing her father’s side of the family, she decided then to “jump in and do genealogy,” she said. “I wanted to find my family.”
What she found was that her paternal grandmother was Jewish, information that had never been shared with Wright’s father and that her ancestors came from Russia, Romania, Poland and Ukraine. And she found Jewish cousins, with whom she remains in contact, who live in Israel.
But perhaps the most life-changing consequence of her discovery is that she, her father and her paternal grandmother all have come to embrace their Jewish heritage, with Wright currently in the conversion process. She attends services at Temple Sinai and events sponsored by J’Burgh and Moishe House.
Wright, now a firm believer in the power of genealogy research, is the outreach coordinator of the newly launched Jewish Genealogy Society of Pittsburgh, which will have its first meeting on Sunday, Oct. 29, at 10:30 a.m. at the Rauh Jewish Archives at the Heinz History Center on Smallman Street.
The event, called “Family at Your Fingertips,” will have presenters discuss current tools for genealogical research, including DNA testing, online resources for vital records and newspaper entries.
Wright said she hopes the group can be a resource for those who have always known they are Jewish to help gather records of their family and also to assist those who have recently discovered their Jewish roots “put the pieces together.”
Steve Jaron, the group’s current president, said that JGSP had a previous incarnation about a decade ago, but dissolved. Although there are many genealogical groups in Western Pennsylvania for various communities and ethnicities, Jaron wanted to re-launch the JGSP to put the focus on Jewish roots.
“Our history is different in the U.S. and abroad,” said Jaron, 38. “Our history and genealogy are treated differently both by us and by others.”
Jaron intends the JGSP to be a central place for those putting together their family trees to hear speakers on genealogical research and discuss current research trends.
At the Oct. 29 meeting, Jaron will be presenting on internet research tools. One could say he is a bit of an expert on the topic, having been immersed in his own extended family’s history, and that of his friends’, for the last 10 years, devoting several hours a day to the task.
“When I’m not working or sleeping, I do this,” he said.
For Jaron, the effort has yielded a huge payoff. He has identified and connected with many relatives all over the world.
“Half my Facebook friends are family now, cousins of varying degrees,” he said.
Some of those distant cousins Jaron has met in person, including a “double fifth cousin,” Benjamin Duenas from Santiago, Chile. “We share two sets of fourth great-grandparents, as two sisters married two brothers.”
He learned that a distant cousin was a player for the Knicks and that he is connected to a U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands. His father is a first cousin to Robert “Rusty” Stevens, who played Larry Mondello on the old “Leave to Beaver” television series.
Through his research, Jaron also has discovered that he is related to his childhood best friend, Josh Tabor. “He started a family tree on Ancestry.com and I recognized some of the names on his side,” Jaron said.
Jaron admits that he does “genealogy stalking,” looking at friends’ family trees and combing through archived Jewish Chronicles and Criterions, which can be found at digitalcollections.library.cmu.edu/portal/collections/pjn/index.jsp.
“For me, this is like Pokemon,” he said. “Gotta catch ’em all.”
For Wright, her research has been part of a long journey in self-discovery.
“It was finding out who I really was and where I came from,” she said. “I found out that Judaism was who I was. I was 22 when I found out. I had been thinking I was something else, and it turned my life upside down. This part of me goes back thousands of years, and it is an amazing group of people.”
For resources on Jewish genealogy research and to learn more about the Jewish Genealogical Society of Pittsburgh, go to jewishgen.org/jgs-pittsburgh/. PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.