Ari Geller, a senior at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School, had intended to start his counselor in training program at Capital Camps in Pennsylvania in June of 2020, but the pandemic ended those plans. Instead, Geller participated in online programming on Zoom for two months, while also delving into his family tree.
But what started as a project to pass the time during COVID-19 turned into a mega project yielding no less than 30,000 family connections using the databases and websites of Ancestry.com, JewishGen and Geni.com, Geller said.
“I wanted to start a project that would occupy me for the summer,” said Geller, who is planning on attending the University of Maryland Robert H. Smith School of Business after he graduates this June. “I have always had an interest in genealogy, but I had never taken the time to make an extensive tree, so I decided to start one.”
This was not Geller’s first venture into genealogy. As a seventh grader at Krieger Schechter Day School, Geller had started a family history project, which at the time yielded 200 or 300 family connections.
“I started by calling my grandparents and asking them what they knew about their family — names, dates, pictures, countries, towns, etc.,” he said. “I also asked for the contact information of other family members who may know more about the family.”
Each telephone call resulted in more names of family members he could call and interview about the family’s history.
As of right now, Geller has 30,726 family connections on his tree. “Some famous names that appear on my tree, in no particular order: Marc Chagall, Elie Wiesel, Reuven Rivlin (president of Israel), the Vilna Gaon — the famous 18th-century rabbi from Lithuania —, Rashi — the famous 12th century rabbi known for his commentary — and Billy Crystal.”
On the Elie Wiesel family connection, Geller explained, “Elie Wiesel was one of my most recent discoveries. Our common relative is a man named Chaim Eliezer Basch, who lived from 1800-1863. Basch is my fourth great-grandfather and Wiesel’s two times great-grandfather, going back six generations.”
Geller verified the family connection to Elie Wiesel with a DNA test through Ancestry.com.
Another connection Geller has verified is his family relationship to the Vilna Gaon, from whom Geller and his family are direct descendants on his father’s side.
As for Billy Crystal, he is a sixth cousin, twice removed.
Geller has advice for anyone wishing to start delving into family history. “To kids my age, start now while your grandparents are still alive. I have spoken to people in their 50s and 60s who say they [wish] they had spoken to their grandparents. To anyone else, ask a lot of questions of your family, gather information, names and stories. Also, be careful with what you find online. You don’t want to copy other people’s work without verifying the information.”
Jonah Geller, Ari Geller’s father and CEO of the York JCC in Pennsylvania, said that his son has introduced them to family members they didn’t even know of.
“One of the best moments during his research was hearing him on the phone saying, ‘Hi, we are sixth cousins, do you have a few minutes to talk?’ Ari was fearless in trying to make connections to family,” Jonah Geller said.
Deborah Geller, Ari Geller’s mother and a program coordinator supervisor at Maryland EXCELS, a project of the IDEALS Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Education, said she is pleased that her son found this project during the pandemic.
“Initially I was pleased that he found something he was interested in and became passionate about at a time when everything he was involved in stopped happening,” she said. “He’s always been into family, and he couldn’t go to camp [because of COVID], so he looked for family. It was a gift for every side of the family.”