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Originally published May 5, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 5, 2008 at 8:20 AM

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Enthusiastic families explore Jewish roots

A forest of family trees sprang up Sunday at a Seattle synagogue, tracing the roots of Washington's Jewish community. More than 400 people...

Seattle Times staff reporter

A forest of family trees sprang up Sunday at a Seattle synagogue, tracing the roots of Washington's Jewish community.

More than 400 people wandered through the genealogical woods — an exhibit, actually, of hand-painted pedigrees commemorating clans whose local branches span six generations.

"We are building public awareness of the importance of keeping our history," said Lisa Kranseler, executive director of the Washington State Jewish Historical Society (WSJHS), sponsor of the event. "These are families who have been here since the beginning of statehood."

Organizers expected about 20 families to participate in the project. They got 74.

"You just mention family, and there couldn't be an easier topic to get people excited about," said WSJHS member Helen Stusser, who helped compile the lists of names, dates and offspring.

Robert Rogers, of Mercer Island, didn't need any convincing that family matters.

The names of his extended tribe cover three canvases in the exhibit at Congregation Ezra Bessaroth in South Seattle. Rogers, who spends a lot of computer time tracking relatives and untangling relationships, knows them well.

There's his great-grandfather Hyman Levitt, who left Russia in the late 1800s and sold furniture in Seattle. On the paternal side was his grandfather Solomon Rogers, who fled Poland at a time when the Russian czar was pressing Jews into military service.

"If you were drafted, you were in for 20 years," said Rogers. "The young men wanted to get the heck out of there."

Many of Washington's early Jewish residents came to the region between 1880 and 1920, part of a wave of immigrants from Eastern Europe, Kranseler said.

A tailor, Solomon Rogers went first to San Francisco, hoping to cash in on the Gold Rush. Instead, he met his wife-to-be, Eva Belle Abrams, a native of Prussia.

The couple married, moved to Seattle and prospered. They lived in a mansion on Queen Anne Hill, where the family would gather every week.

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"It was the Sunday ritual," said Frances Rogers, Robert's sister-in-law. "That house had the best view you could possibly imagine."

The mansion was demolished in the 1960s and replaced with condos — a piece of family history lost forever.

"A person doesn't get interested in genealogy until the people who have all the answers have died," Robert Rogers lamented. "You never think about it when you're a kid."

But 15-year-old Shelby Halela, of Woodinville, is ahead of the curve. She stood with a cousin in front of their family tree, picking out details about who married whom.

Their forebears were Sephardic Jews who settled on the Greek island of Rhodes after being driven out of Spain, Halela said. Today, she jokes, it seems like everyone she meets in Seattle is a relative.

The WSJHS hopes eventually to build a Jewish heritage museum.

Meanwhile, Halela said she's committed to keeping track of her own family, past and present.

"In the younger generation, somebody has to keep it alive."

Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or sdoughton@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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