Monday, December 2, 2019

Begging George Takei

Here is a copy of an e-mail I sent to Mr. George Takei.  I chose him because I thought that this issue might interest him as the child of immigrants and as an activist concerned with policies that affect immigrants.  After all, what is genealogy but an attempt to learn about immigrants?  Whether we got here via boat, border crossing, or ancient land bridge, every single American is an immigrant.  That isn't a political statement on my part.  There isn't a single one of us whose people sprouted out of American soil like grass.  Even if you arrived on the Mayflower, you *arrived* in this beautiful land from somewhere else.   Genealogy is how we learn about those amazing ancestors of ours.

I don't know if Mr. Takei will receive my e-mail; it's not exactly easy to find the e-mail address for a famous actor and activist.  I probably would have had a better chance of success if I'd sent it via snail mail to his company, but time is short...  so here is a copy of the letter I tried to send:

Dear Mr. Takei,

Thank you for taking the time to read this.  I've always been a huge fan, but I'm writing to you not as a fan, but as a fellow child of immigrants.  Learning about where my people come from helps me learn about who I am as a person and as an American.  USCIS is trying to shut down our ability to access information about our immigrant forebearers.  It used to cost $85 ($20 for a records search + $65 for the records).  They want to raise that to $625 per record!  Please see  This is information that should already be available via FOIA and available *for free* at NARA. I've been an amateur genealogist for more than 20 years and can tell you that sometimes this is the ONLY way to find out about our hard-to-find ancestors!

Mr. Takei, I'm begging you.  Two years ago I sent away for information about my father's grandfather who immigrated to America between sometime between 1900 (I think) and 1910.  They sent me a response saying that my great-grandfather's file had been misplaced, but they find misfiled records "all the time" and told me to try again in a "few years."  If this rate hike passes, I might never be able to find out about my great-grandfather!  What ordinary person can afford $625 for what might turn out to be a single piece of paper?  I don't understand why they are doing this.  Do they want us to forget that nearly every American is descended from immigrants?  Do they just not want us to have access to information?  I'm sure that you have much more important matters on your mind, but I would be incredibly grateful if you would look into this and see if you think it is worth lending your voice which is so much more powerful than mine (or any genealogist's).

More information about the history and why we care can be found at and  Thank you again for your time. 

With admiration,
Mindie Kaplan

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Protesting USCIS wanting $625 for our records

Okay, I've been quiet for a really long time... a really embarrassingly long time.  I'm sorry and will try to do better, but this is something that I think is VERY important to us as genealogists and to us as Americans.  I know there's a whole lot going on right now, especially in the political arena, but please take the time to read this message.  I'll be following up with copies of e-mails to people I hoped would help, e-mails which explain why this is so incredibly important to me personally.  But anyway...

I recently saw this message from Reclaim the Records, a non-profit formed by a woman I admire very much (as should every genealogist): Brooke Schreier Ganz


Help us stop the government from holding American history hostage!
Submit your comments to USCIS before December 16, 2019!

Hello again from Reclaim The Records! We're interrupting your probable post-Thanksgiving stupor to bring you some important and time-sensitive records access news.
Two weeks ago, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) proposed an unprecedented 492% increase in fees for researchers who want copies of historical records held by their Genealogy Program.
Yes, that did say 492%. No, it's not a typo.
Screenshot from a USCIS file
This special Genealogy Program was set up about a decade ago as a way for researchers to bypass the usual tedious USCIS Freedom of Information (FOIA) requests system, which can take six months or more to respond. In return for the expedited handling for these historical files, the agency charged a bit more than the usual FOIA fees, but only enough to be recover the costs of running the program.
At least, that was how the program was supposed to work. In practice, many of the records acquired through this "streamlined" process are still sent through the FOIA redaction process anyway, delaying their access. And as for the part about recouping the program's costs, the fees were already hiked just three years ago, more than tripled in cost. It now costs researchers $65 just for a basic index search, where you send USCIS every variant and misspelling of your relative's name that you can think of, and then they search their partially digitized database for all the relevant records, and report back the record number. Then it will cost you another $65 to actually get the copies of those records.

(Note that the previous $20 fee for copies was supposedly covering the program's actual and indirect costs just fine, according to a 2012 report from the OMB (Office of Management and Budget).)
But under this brand new proposed rule change, the price of a copy of a single paper file could rise in 2020 from $65 to a whopping $625! (Okay, technically, it would "only" be $385 for the record retrieval part, if you somehow magically already knew the file number, but most researchers don't.)
Screenshot from a USCIS file  

What kinds of files are we talking about here?

The USCIS Genealogy Program provides researcher access to...
  • C-Files (Naturalization Certificate Files) - Anyone who naturalized in the US between September 27, 1906 and March 31, 1956 should have a C-File.
  • Form AR-2 (Alien Registration Forms) - All aliens over the age of fourteen who were residents in the US from August 1, 1940 to March 31, 1944, as well as those who immigrated within that timeframe, should have an AR-2.
  • Visa Files - Most immigrants who were admitted for permanent residence between July 1, 1924 and March 31, 1944 should have a visa file, which usually includes an application with a photo and copies of vital records.
  • Registry Files - The Registry Act of 1929 allowed for individuals who arrived between June 29, 1906 and July 1, 1924 and for whom no arrival could be found to legalize their arrival into the country and move forward with the naturalization process.
  • And last but certainly not least, A-Files (Alien Files) - People who arrived in the US after April 1, 1944, and aliens resident in the US before that date who had subsequent contact with the INS, should have an A-File. The USCIS Genealogy Program can release these files for all A-File numbers below 8,000,000, which is those who entered the US before May 1, 1951. (More recent immigrants can get their A-File paperwork through the usual USCIS FOIA process, not this special Genealogy Program.)
Basically, any American immigrant who arrived on or after July 1, 1924 would be found in at least one of these record sets, as well as most immigrants who arrived after 1900 and lived until or past 1940. But USCIS is essentially planning to hold these records hostage, demanding researchers pay exorbitant and unjustifiable fees that have nothing to do with the actual costs of running the program.
Screenshot from a USCIS file  

Wait, why haven't these records been handed over to the National Archives yet? And why aren't they available under FOIA directly?

Great question, we're so glad you asked, because we're seriously asking the same thing. Many of these records should already be publicly accessible under the law. And USCIS' own records retention schedule says many of these records were already supposed to be turned over to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). And some of the records that they did turn over to NARA on microfilm, like the Alien Registration Forms, are still subject to USCIS restrictions!
And we at Reclaim The Records are starting the process of talking to our awesome crew of lawyers to see what we can do about this mess, from a legal point of view.
(Seriously, a situation where there's millions and millions of massively important genealogy records weirdly not being available under FOIA and being made functionally unavailable to the public just so a government agency can unjustly profit off their exclusive access is like totally completely exactly our specialty!)
But in the meantime, as long as these files remain stuck at USCIS, they're targeted for this newly proposed and totally unreasonable fee hike.
Screenshot from a USCIS file  

Introducing 'Records, Not Revenue'

So we're writing this newsletter to you guys because while we investigate our possible legal options, there is still a chance that we can all stop this new rule, this gross price gouging, from going into effect in the first place. But we have to act fast.
We at Reclaim The Records are pleased to announce that we have teamed up as part of an ad hoc non-partisan group of fellow genealogists, historians, and records access advocates, to try to stop these fee hikes. And we're starting with a website to explain what these records are, why they're important, what the USCIS Genealogy Program is, and why this price hike is totally ridiculous and unjustified.
Please check out, where you can learn about:
But most importantly, make sure you submit your comments to USCIS about this proposed fee hike by December 16, 2019. That's not too far away. If you're as mad about this totally needless and unjustifiable and sudden and awful fee hike on our history, as we are, we hope you'll submit your comments to them today. All the instructions are right there on the website, including a postal mail address in case a good old fashioned letter is more your style.
Thanks for reading, and we hope we'll see your comments in the Federal Register.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Every Once in a While it's Easy: DNA [and why you should research collateral branches]

A while back, I received an e-mail from Toby about my 3rd cousin once removed, Barbara.  Toby was interested in the potential 2nd-3rd cousin match of Barbara to her relative B.J.  Toby also mentioned a number of other relatives she's had tested.  I've seen them show up in some of the FamilyFinder results, but always very distantly.

I've been attending a lot of DNA lectures, so the first thing I did was pull up the FTDNA chromosome browser.  They share 53 DNA segments, but most of them were small.  Once I filtered out everything under 10cm, I was left with a handful of shared segments, all of them under 20cm.  I figured there was nothing here worth investigating, but I wanted to be nice, so I wrote Toby back and answered her questions.  She was looking for AUERBACH/AVERBUKH connections.

Hi Toby,

Yes, I manage Barbara's kit.  There don't appear to be any strong matches to any of Barbara's known relatives that I've tested (Cooper and Allen/Entes lines).  However, Barbara's paternal grandmother, Edith Goldweber (1898-1989), was the daughter of Motel Goldweber and Chova AVERBACK. Could Averback be a misspelling of Auerback?  Edith Goldweber settled in Cleveland, Ohio.  I'll see what else I can find out about her.

What do you think?


Toby immediately wrote back:

Hi Mindie,
Yes- you've got it. 
Chava Goldweber was the sister of Avram Goldberg, my great grandfather. Their original surname was Auerbach (which is written and pronounced as Averbukh, Averback, Auerbakh etc). this is absolutely verified by paper trail and family .

We had a mini-reunion of Auerbach descendants at my parents house in abt 2008. Barbara's parents and her uncle and aunt Sylvia were all there. 
This isn't a line I'm researching, but now Toby has another kit she can use as a reference point and I know how several other kits that I haven't contacted (because they were too distant) are related to my ALLEN/ENTES family.

Toby also sent me a ton of information about this really interesting line:  

"Our Auerbach/Averbuch family descends supposedly from a lineage of 14 generations of rabbis. I'm still working on that part, BUT what we do know is the following 

1. The earliest known forefather was the Gaon Rabbi Yisrael Auerbach, Rabbi of Kosow. He had one son (at least): Yehuda Leib b abt 1750. 
2. Yehuda Leib was the Gaon Rabbi Yehuda Leibish Auerbach. He was the rabbi and Av Bet Din of Horodenko, then of Kosow later Rabbi of Torcin, and finally Av Bet Din of Vishniewitz where he died in roughly 1810. He wrote a book called Mehokek Yehuda.  He was married twice and had at least 3 sons and 2 daughters by the first wife. Not clear on children from the second wife.
3. Not clear which of the sons was our direct relative. We actually know more about the daughters as they married famous rabbis. 
4. Then we have Mystery Son's child, Rabbi Yitzhak Yehuda Auerbach. He married a woman named Gella. YY was the Rabbi and Av Bet Din of Rozhishche. They are supposed to have had about 10 children. We know 6 of them: Ephraim b. abt 1857, Abram Elya b. 1858 (my great grandfather), Zlota b. 1867, Chava b. 1871 (Barbara's great grandmother), Rochel, and Jennie. YY died before 1885. Gella died before 1904. 

    * Abram came to the US in abt 1885. He brought over his wife, Toba and children, then helped bring over Zlota and Chava. This is family from which B.J. descends.
    * Ephraim was a rabbi who died in 1925 in Horchiv, Russia where he was a rabbi. One of his children came to the US aided by Abram. The rest of that line was killed in the Holocaust. 
    * Zlota married a Siegel. She was known as Sarah in the US 
    * Chava married Mottel Goldweber in Rozhishche and 7 of their children were born there. The whole family was in the US (in Cols OH) by 1911 This is the family from which Barbara  descends. 
    * Jennie married Joseph Bronstein in Russia. Of their 7 children 4 came to the US (Cols OH) and 3 remained in Russia. One child of the family that remained in Russia was able to survive WWII and get out. This is the family from which Jenny [another person who shows up in the DNA matches] descends. 
    * Rochel married Isaac Schafir. Two of their children came to the US, one had descendants who went to Israel, the rest died in Russia in the Holocaust. This is the family from which Ruth [another tested DNA kit] descends. " 

All of this makes me glad that I've been researching people who aren't directly related to me.  The GOLDBERG and GOLDWEBBERs aren't related to anything I'm researching, but they married into my lines.  If I hadn't been researching those collateral branches, we wouldn't have been able to figure out how B.J. connects to Barbara.

IAJGS 2017 Conference

I gave two presentations at the IAJGS conference:

Finding Your Kaplans: How to Research Common Names
Organize and Share Your Genealogy: Methods from the Library of Congress

Both presentations were a part of the IAJGS Live! program and will be posted here as soon as I receive a copy of the talks.

The updated handouts for both the talks can be downloaded at IAJGS 2017 Handouts.  Please let me know if you have any problems downloading the handouts!

Monday, June 26, 2017

Are you looking for the DNA portion of my presentation from last year's IAJGS conference?

I recently suggested that some people look at my "Get them to say yes!" presentation from the 2016 IAJGS conference for information on DNA.  The DNA portion of that presentation starts at 54:46.  You can skip ahead to that point by dragging the status bar at the bottom of the video.  Enjoy!

Saturday, October 29, 2016

DNA Triangulation Made Easy: A Case Study

One of the things that has absolutely fascinated me are the new doors opened up by looking at DNA.  As I mentioned in my "Get them to say yes" presentation, DNA has helped me identify new branches of my family that can then be confirmed via paper trail, photos, and family stories.  DNA suggests new places to look.

I received an e-mail a few months ago addressed to my 3rd cousin 1x removed, Barbara.  Barbara had recently agreed to be tested as a part of a Facebook plea asking for members of a certain branch of my family to test.  The reason I was asking for more people to test is that I'm a huge fan of DNA Triangulation.

DNA Triangulation uses autosomal DNA tests (in this case FamilyTreeDNA's FamilyFinder test) from multiple known relatives to help identify which genetic lines they share with previously unknown genetic matches.  If Saul (a previously unknown person) has a close match with my known relatives David, Sherry, and Matt, then the relationship is probably along the ancestral lines that David, Sherry, and Matt have in common.

The reason to use an autosomal test (aside from the fact that it is the least expensive test) is that autosomal tests look at DNA from both of a person's parents so they can pick up relationships that are not straight paternal line (Y-DNA) or straight maternal line (mtDNA).  So if your mother's father's aunt is the connection between two people,  a FamilyFinder test may pick it up (at least until you get past the 5th cousin level, in which case it fades into the background of random chance or with Jewish endogomy you hit the "we're all Ashkenazi Jews" wall since we're more or less all related to each other).

So, I took one branch of my family, Harry Cooper and Martha Allen, and asked if the oldest living descendant of each of their eight children would be willing to take a DNA test.  I didn't get someone from every branch (yet) but a good number of people agreed.

Harry Cooper and his wife Martha Allen Cooper

The results from one of the branches, Barbara, had her results come back on October 14th. An e-mail showed up in my inbox the very next day.  Apparently Barbara's results had her listed as a 3rd-5th cousin match with him and as a 2nd-3rd cousin match with his mother!

During our e-mail exchange he sent me the results of his mother's chromosome browser results with a number of my known relatives.  Barbara, David, and Stuart are all first cousins to each other.  This enabled me to narrow down the shared genetic line to the ancestors shared by all three people.

As you can see, all four people share a match on chromosome 21, however there are three other spots where three of the four individuals share a segment of DNA that is greater than 5cm.

Okay, what does it tell me?  Does it tell me that Barbara is definitely related to this man's mother?  Probably not yet, but it does make me want to take a closer look at the ancestors that David, Stuart, and Barbara have in common.

Following the DNA Triangulation method, my next step would be to get descendants of the lines that David, Stuart, and Barbara have in common to test.  One of the lines these three have in common is Halperin.  If, for example, I test known Halperin who I can link to these three via a traditional paper trail and the match with these new people continue, then I know to take a closer look at the Halperins.  If there's no match with Halperins, but a match with known relatives who are Isaacsons and not Halperins (David, Stuart, and Barbara are descended from both), then I know to take a closer look at the Isaacson line.

What do you think?  Does this technique seem useful, or is it an expensive waste of time and money in Jewish populations since we're endogomous to begin with?  This is such a new science; we all have so much to learn!

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Get them to say YES: Reluctant Relatives, Cold Calls, and DNA Testing

The presentation listing for the Madrona room.

I finally got up the nerve to apply to speak at the 2016 IAJGS (International Association of Jewish Genealogists) convention and was accepted.  I was in a fairly small room, but it was still standing room only.  I was introduced by the amazing Lara Diamond, who also wrote a bit about my talk on her blog at Lara's Genealogy: IAJGS 2016 Day 5.  A preliminary version of this talk was presented at a JGSMD meeting and was revised and expanded based on the questions people asked.

A small, but packed room with my first cousin 1x removed Estelle in the front row.

The first thing most people think of when interviewing in relatives is how many names, dates, or places that person can provide.  I try to turn that idea on its head.  What can I give THEM?  What stories can I share?  What photos can I provide that they might not have seen, or that might bring back good memories?  How can we become friends?  We all share things with people that we like.  If you give me a gift, I'm going to give you a gift in return -- the gift of friendship, memories, of wanting to help you and join you on that journey to discover our history.  This idea, connecting family and becoming a part of a larger group, is at the heart of my research.  This is what I hoped to convey in my talk.

I tried to turn this central philosophy and approach into a series of concrete techniques for reaching out to relatives, including those who are reluctant to meet with a stranger, and provide examples of research successes to inspire and encourage people to expand their research in new areas.

The lecture was really broken into three sections:

  • "Relatives" 
    • How do you contact them?
    • How do you prepare for the meeting or interview?
    • What role does documentation play?
    • Why it's important to be an ethical researcher.
  • "Cold Calls" 
    • How do you find new people?
    • How do you convince them to talk to you, a stranger?
    • How do you build a relationship that will lead to even more relatives?
  • DNA Testing
    • What can DNA tell you?
    • How do you ask someone to take a DNA test?  
    • What are some examples that will get them interested in participating?

If you'd like to hear more, here is the video of my presentation:

If you have any problems with the video, this link will also take you there:
Get them to say yes presentation (IAJGS 2016)

Thoughts and comments are more than welcome!