Maps of Eastern Europe past and present stretched across one wall, vintage photos of Jewish-owned businesses in Atlantic City covered two long tables, and everywhere laptop screens blazed with displays of data — page after page of handwritten ship registries and immigration records.
Despite the avalanche of material on the Web, it seemed everybody had a question.
"I've gotten a bunch of information online, but where do I go from here?" asked Marlton retiree Ed Kaminsky, 66.
"The data is a starting point," Schecter told me. "The data is dead. It's lifeless. What we need are the stories, the narratives. Because that's how we learn, how we connect. The stories make it alive."
To Jewish people researching their family trees, Americanized names are a challenge, as are evolving national borders and political systems in Europe. And the witnesses to the Holocaust are passing away.
"We're at a critical moment in history," Schecter said. "We need to begin to capture the survivors' memories of what went on in Europe before the Holocaust."
Although there were a few young faces in the crowd at Beth Shalom, most of the attendees were of a certain age — I know it well — where we realize that members of the previous generation are disappearing, one by one.
"There are so many things I didn't ask," Kaminsky sighed — another feeling I know all too well.
A native Philadelphian, Schecter became passionate about genealogy about 15 years ago. His mother, Doris, was terminally ill, and her youth around Fourth and Monroe Streets was her favorite subject.
"She was a member of that first generation of Jews in South Philly," he said. After she died "there was no one else I could go to for information. … I was the last of the line."
Society president Fred Blum, 61, of Huntingdon Valley, says the 220-member society had "helped connect people with relatives they never knew." Including his own: When his mother, who is alive, was 80, he found she had a 94-year-old aunt living in Israel. "And I took my mother to Israel to meet her," Blum says.
"At lot of information that's been hidden is now coming to life," he says.
Ruth Bogutz, 74, of Cherry Hill, examined a map of present-day Eastern Europe and searched for her father's birthplace.
"It's another piece of the puzzle," said Bogutz, retired executive director of the Camden County Cultural and Heritage Commission. "My father came here very young. And I have to wonder, who was left behind?
Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or email@example.com, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the metro columnists' blog, “Blinq," at www.phillynews.com/blinq.
Amateur genealogical sleuths explore their Jewish heritage. www.philly.com/jewishroots.