November 13, 2018

My fifth-grade family tree project

My son Joey’s fifth-grade class at Sinai Akiba Academy is participating in the worldwide “My Family Story” competition sponsored by Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People, on the campus of Tel Aviv University. The kids have to start by building a family tree, and then they put together an art project. The winners get a trip to Israel for an exhibit at the museum. Last year 13,000 students participated.

Rather than try to live vicariously through Joey’s project, I decided that I would do my own project alongside his. I have been working on my family tree for about 40 years, since I did my own grade-school family tree assignment in third-grade. Over the years, I’ve become something of an expert in the field of Jewish genealogy, serving on the board of, the Internet hub for Jewish genealogy, and as a curator for’s World Family Tree, an online collaborative tree with about 87 million connected profiles and more than 3 million connected users. Last year, I launched a Facebook group called the Jewish Genealogy Portal, which already has over 4,000 members.

My project was to try to get all 53 kids in Joey’s class connected to each other in one tree. is the perfect platform for this experiment, as it has by far the largest online tree. I quickly found about half of the kids in the class were already on Geni. Connecting to the World Family Tree is not hard for most families. If you add someone who matches a person in someone else’s tree, you merge the trees together. Once you are merged into the World Family Tree, Geni’s relationship finder can often find the shortest relationship path between two people in the tree (actually a very difficult computational task). In the Jewish parts of the tree, finding a relationship is pretty much automatic. Everyone is related by marriage, cousin to cousin to cousin. This turns out to be true, regardless of where you are from. Sephardic, Ashkenazi, Persian, Mizrachi, Yemeni, Italian — it doesn’t matter. By now, all Jews in the world are very closely related or connected to one another.

Getting the rest of the kids in the class connected required some effort. First I wrote to all the parents, explaining the project and offering to help get them connected. That quickly helped bring me up to 35 kids. Cajoling the remaining 18 families to participate proved to be more difficult. Some were afraid of identity theft, which really is not a risk from online genealogy, although many people wrongly think it is. (In any case, Geni makes living people private by default.) I used every opportunity to plead my case. And I tried to find other people who could help connect to the remaining families. After a few weeks, I decided to start the remaining trees myself. That helped me find connections to several of them, because Geni alerted me to a match in another tree that I had missed.  

I used every resource at my disposal and ultimately succeeded in linking up the last remaining kids in Joey’s class. That’s right. All 53 kids were connected to one another in one single family tree. As I connected the kids to Joey, I printed out the relationship paths and he brought them to school to show his classmates. Joey told me that some of the girls weren’t so excited to be related to a boy in the class, which of course only made him more eager to show them the connection.

The relationship between Joey and his 52 classmates wasn’t necessarily very close, but the connection could be found. One boy turned out to be a distant blood relative, Joey’s 15th cousin thrice removed. The rest were connected by marriage, with between 16 and 42 steps between the kids and Joey. (An immediate family member  — parent, spouse, sibling, child — is considered one step away.) The average distance was 28 steps.

Although many people believe that their family trees are private, it turns out that we all leave enough traces on the Internet for someone to figure out our family relationships. Of course, the whole idea of living anonymously is a recent construct. Think back to the villages in which our ancestors lived. There wasn’t a person in town who didn’t know who your parents and grandparents were, or who wasn’t connected to you (by blood or marriage) in some way. Geni’s World Family Tree is allowing us to re-establish this same level of connectivity on a much more massive scale. There is no denying the fact that we are all connected to each other.

To prove this point, best-selling author A.J. Jacobs is writing a book on genealogy and is convening a Global Family Reunion to benefit Alzheimer’s research on June 6, 2015 at the New York Hall of Science. Who’s invited? You! And all 7 billion members of the human family. Those with a proven connection to A.J. (via Geni) will get a bracelet and be part of the biggest family photo in history. (See for more information.)

I don’t know whether I will be attending the Global Family Reunion, and Joey hasn’t decided what his art project will be for the My Family Story contest, but we’ve already learned a lot, not only about our own family, but about how connected we are to everyone else in the world. Building a family tree doesn’t have to be just an assignment for fifth-graders; it can be a project for the whole family, the whole class and even the whole world. 

E. Randol Schoenberg is president of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.