Interview with Rabbi Scott Kalmikoff (’18)
Rabbi Scott Kalmikoff (’18) is a professional genealogist and Global Connections Education Associate at the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
How did you first become interested in genealogy?
I was about 15 years old when I first became interested in genealogy. I was very close to my mom’s parents. I grew up in a two-family home in Staten Island, New York. My grandparents lived on the first floor, and I grew up on the second floor. Since we lived in the same house, I saw them every day, but I didn’t know anything about my dad’s side of the family. His parents both passed away when he was younger. I didn’t grow up in an observant Jewish home. I actually grew up in an interfaith family. My mom’s side was the non-Jewish side, and my dad’s side was the Jewish side. I was exploring my Jewish identity and learning about my Judaism at the same time that I became interested in genealogy in a serious way. Those two interests–Judaism and my own family ancestry–emerged hand-in-hand for me.
Did learning about your Jewish side of the family have an impact on your Jewish observance at the time?
My dad’s family, while they were Jewish, weren’t observant. They weren’t shul-goers. So I don’t know if learning about their ancestry had a particular impact on my observance, but it strengthened my Jewish identity. I had a strong desire to learn about it and understand it better.
What made you decide to make genealogy your professional work?
I was working at Mount Freedom Jewish Center in New Jersey. Rabbi Menashe, the rabbi at the shul, is a YCT alum. And while I was there, I decided to run a Jewish genealogy workshop on a Sunday morning. During the workshop, one of the participants who was also a congregant came to me and said, “Rabbi Scott, I would like you to research my family’s genealogy for me.” I went over to her home, brought my laptop, and I took down all her information. As I started to look into her family tree, I was able to find documents like ship manifests, ancestral hometowns, and other important information about her ancestors. She was my first client. Then a friend of mine, a Conservative rabbi in Los Angeles, was getting her rabbi friends to co-teach classes for her. She asked me if I would facilitate a Jewish genealogy workshop. Those two experiences became really great opportunities to offer my expertise, and it went from there.
What makes studying the genealogy of Jews different from those in other ethnic or religious groups?
For Jews, there are several differences. Immigration patterns of Jews to the United States, for instance, were different. Records were kept differently for Jews. It varies from country to country, for sure, and also between Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews. But the primary difference, I would say, is that the waves of immigration to the U.S. looked different for Jews.
What draws you to genealogy after so many years of studying it?
For a lot of people, it becomes an obsession. It’s more than a hobby–it’s a passion. People fall in love with it. It’s a journey of self-exploration–trying to understand who we are and where we come from. Those are really the questions people ask when they ask me to conduct this research for them. It also fills emotional needs sometimes. For me, I didn’t know a certain side of my family, and genealogy answered those questions.
What do you think are people really trying to find out about themselves and their family histories when they come to you?
Well, people understand that I won’t be able to tell them what their ancestors’ values and convictions and beliefs were. Sometimes you can do a little bit of that, like finding a name in a voters’ list, or union membership. That kind of paints a picture. You can find out religious observance, who their communities were.
I do find that who we hope our ancestors were says more about us than it does about them. We’ll never fully know, but we can piece things together and paint a picture. During my free consultation at the very beginning, I try and get a sense of their hopes and expectations. I need to know what a client’s goals are and what they are expecting to find out. I want to make sure clients get the outcome they desire. I think it’s super important to connect people with their history. Everybody has a different goal going into this process, and I try to establish that from the outset.
How has, if at all, your YCT training helped you in your genealogical work?
Everybody at YCT knew how passionate I was about genealogy. All the opportunities I had at YCT, the fellowships and internships, allowed me to be able to meet other rabbis and students out in the field, and now I do workshops for them at their synagogues and their schools because they are looking for programming. The need for content that is engaging and meaningful to people is driving me to do these workshops.
To learn more visit https://www.genealogywithrabbiscott.com/