Genealogy Web site attempts to map out entire Jewish people
Famillion, accessible via Haaretz.com, uses bio-informative methods to authenticate genetic information.
In the near future, provided Dan Rolls realizes his vision, any Jew in the world could easily visit a Web site where he would be able trace back his genealogical trecoe in a way that would show him his or her family connections with thousands of relatives he had never known about across the globe.
Rolls and his partners at Famillion believe that they need 300,000 Jews - figure that constitutes 2 percent of the Jewish people - to upload their genealogical tree. So far, Famillion's servers have received the genealogical tree of 70,000.
The idea came to him eight years ago when he went with his wife for genetic testing. "We needed to each write down our genealogical tree and list various pathological disorders among our parents and relatives," he recalls.
"The geneticist who treated us put the pages we had filled out in a drawer. I had this vision of all the pages flying out of the drawer and connecting to each other until they formed a whole planet."
Rolls began implementing this vision five years later, when he teamed up with Yiftah and Ilan Cohen to form Famillion, a startup that uses bio-informative methods and advanced programs to produce a platform where genealogical trees can be cross-checked and traced for compatibility.
True to its origins at the geneticist's office, Famillion is based on genetic studies. "We compared genetic sequences to the way family trees are arranged, and we discovered they, too, were unique," says Rolls. "We realized we can match them and connect them in such a way that would create something much bigger."
Famillion ended up developing a unique technology, which now has possible applications in science and security. It can be used to prevent identity theft and online impersonations. But that is not the primary vision Rolls has for this system. He wants to use it to comprehensively map out the Jewish People.
"It became immediately clear to us that this method was very suitable to the needs of the Jewish people and that if we would act in parallel in Israel, in the United States and in the former Soviet Union, in France and in Argentina, then we would be able to build a database that would fine the common denominator between people who, in the age of globalization, are drifting apart," Rolls said.
Because many family name have different spelling, depending on the country, Rolls and his partner developed a special program which translates each family name to its other variations, and cross checks it with family trees of people from all over the world.
Many of the 70,000 family trees that have already been uploaded to Famillion's servers came from schoolchildren who used the system to write their Shorashim project, an assignment many Jewish children complete, in which they draw their family tree and tell the class about their family history.
To increase their database on their way to crossing the 300,000 mark, Famillion has recently started cooperating with a number of public and business organizations. The Haaretz group is one of them, and the project is accessible through Haaretz.com.
Famillion plans to initiate a similar cooperation with Jewish.ru: a network of Web sites that belong to the umbrella group for Russian Jewry. The Jewish Agency might jump on the Famillion wagon soon, in a bid to use the Famillion platform to disseminate its educational programs for Jews in the Diaspora.
"We believe that this project will serve to augment the feeling of connectedness that people have," Rolls says. "It will happen when the users see before their eyes how they are connected to other Jews across the world. It can connect ultra-Orthodox Jews to Reform Jews, the secular to religious people. It will mean that family will be able to find its forefathers who 500 years ago were deported from Spain. They could find out that one branch of the same family settled in Lithuania, while another branch ended up in Morocco."
The question now is not only whether the technology will deliver what Rolls and other expect from it, but also whether the users will want to know what this method has to offer. Would a Hassidic Jew really want to find out that he has a cousin who converted to Christianity and became Catholic? Would he want to have this information available to everyone online?
"It's a tool that potentially could have a lot of power," said a Jewish Agency official involved with Famillion. "But I'm not sure it could help bring people who are not interested in their Judaism closer to it, and some people might not like to have their entire family history exposed on the Web.