This weekend, despite Conn’s friendly but urgent request, we did not have an opportunity to go through the archival material the synagogue was going to provide us. It’s likely that these documents are still in a Newark storage facility. Hopefully they will be brought back soon.
We are also waiting to get the conservator’s data on the site, but they must either have permission from the synagogue or, more likely, will only provide it to the sexton, who can then give it to us. We will continue to send reminders on both of these things, but in the mean time there is a lot of other work to be done. All of these records will provide very helpful and (we hope) fascinating information, but it isn’t necessary to wait for them.
Our immediate need is to build a solid, clean database of names, dates, locations, and personal information, and this naturally has to begin with ensuring we have as many names we can verify.
At the New York Historical Society on Saturday Conn and I went through city directories for years spanning from 1786-1830. In addition to providing some of the information we need, this process also revealed how much the city changed in this period of time. The size of the directories expanded, and the number of Jewish names also increased substantially. As families grew, there were many more of the same names too. (This is true for everyone in the directory, of course.) They were increasingly fewer Sephardic names as well, which makes sense, since Ashkenazi Jews were beginning to arrive in greater numbers.
Once the database is put in shape, we can move on to searching death records in FamilySearch database. Since I have a (free) account, this won’t be difficult. An initial foray into these records provided a great deal of information – perhaps more than we can probably get from our archival sources: names, birth and death dates, birth location, death location, spouse/status, occupation, and cemetery. In this last piece of data, that usually reads “Hebrews.” This is extremely helpful: I came across a couple of people who died during our target time frame with the same or similar names as those on our list, only they were buried in Trinity or another Christian cemetery — or Potter’s field. Definitely not the same people! It’s very unlikely that any Jews would have gone to Potter’s field because the congregation generally took responsibility for burying people who were indigent, whether or not they were active members. According to the sexton, it still does this on occasion.
In the later stages of the database construction (which is soon), we will begin doing more background reading to help us with the narrative components of the site. Most of these secondary sources include information about the congregation and especially prominent individuals in the congregation, a number of whom on our list.
I got in touch with Rachel Frankel, who did the initial transcription of the burial ledger we saw. (At this point, we’ve seen more documents than she did last summer when she worked with the conservators.) She’s interested in our project and will be giving us the transcriptions she made of still-legible headstones in the cemetery.
We are also rethinking our initial direction in terms of the platform and tools we’ll use for the website. Now that hosting is an option, this creates many more possibilities for the kind of visualization and content we can feature. Although we’re still quite a way off, it’s exciting to imagine what we might be able to include.