Situation: You are charged with safeguarding precious community records collected over two hundred years. You learn that the digital platform which supports your antiquated data software will go out of existence on a date not far in the future.
What’s at stake: Your basic business functions, but more importantly, your data: burial records of thirty-five thousand beloved deceased members of the Cincinnati Jewish community, each bit of data painstakingly transcribed from antique books over the last quarter century. And there are reams of precious documents yet to be culled for information and digitized for preservation.
What do you do?
Find a unicorn
Jewish Cemeteries of Greater Cincinnati, which is responsible for twenty-five cemeteries in this region, was facing this situation back in 2019. Jewish Cemeteries needed a very special person to take on this critical project, a “unicorn” who could overcome all tech obstacles, both known and unknown, while caring deeply about our community’s history. That unicorn is Sarah Strouse, a remarkable woman who started as Jewish Cemeteries’ Office Manager in January 2020. Sarah has finally seen her new software “go live” just a few weeks before the recent September 26, 2021 rededication of Chestnut Street Cemetery, culminating over a year of problem solving.
Back in early 2020, Sarah oriented herself to all of her office manager functions and procedures and then immediately began collaborating with IT engineers of the new software’s designers. “A database migration is an incredibly challenging process. Sarah’s background made me confident that she was the right person to manage this project,” said Executive Director David Harris. “There was so much riding on success, especially in light of also preparing for the big bicentennial celebration of Cincinnati’s Jewish community at the same time.”
The first step was to find and invest in new, cutting-edge cemetery data software. The new system had to have enhanced genealogy search functions and also a mapping feature, allowing family members to get online directions to within feet of a grave location. The new search feature is available through Jewish Cemeteries’ website. “We wanted a database that would enhance our efficiency in the office and that would also be a benefit to the community,” said Harris.
Once the new software was identified, the next challenge was to customize it to perform many more functions and services for Jewish Cemeteries and the community. Crucially, at the end, data from the old software would need to be “migrated” to the new system — extremely dangerous territory — and all done while performing Jewish Cemeteries’ sacred work in providing for the community’s burial needs.
No one is happier than Strouse to be doing this work, which she says combines everything she loves most: tangible history, genealogy, teaching, meeting and helping people, storytelling, and problem solving. When she learned details of the position’s demands, her excitement grew so much that she informed Harris, “I think you need to give me this job.” Strouse says flatly that she loves her job so much, that “I’m spoiled. I cannot work anywhere else ever again.”
Strouse’s title, Office Manager, gives little clue to the wide range of skills and passion for the work that she brings to the role. Arriving with two Education degrees, experience in both teaching and school administration, in both secular and Jewish higher education, expertise in data-driven decision making and data migration, historical and genealogical research, as well as recent local historical entrepreneurship, Strouse clearly has the versatility for her demanding and unpredictable workload.
Growing family trees
While some information on familial relationships was available in the old online search on Jewish Cemeteries’ website, nothing could connect one person’s record to that of their relatives buried in the cemeteries. With the new software’s greater cross-referencing capability, the task going forward will be to build those connections and make them all searchable, essentially allowing community members to create family trees of their loved ones.
Tracking down familial relationships in order to link a decedent to any related records will take hundreds of hours of patient detective work. Strouse dreams of training what she calls a volunteer “cadre of nerds” to piece together these puzzles as well as to digitize all the photos, clippings and archival materials entrusted to Jewish Cemeteries over the years, so that they, too, can be linked to family trees. Community members will be asked to share their own family research to help build Cincinnati’s Jewish family tree.
Harris looks forward to the time when he can turn Sarah loose to start building her “cadre of nerds” and begin linking family members in the database. The online search feature currently has mapping that will direct visitors to the general area of a grave. “We are anxious to aid genealogical research. With the help of volunteers, we are already generating geo-tags for the graves in our cemeteries so that eventually visitors will be able to find any grave via Google mapping on their phone or computer.”
After months of preparation, the risky data migration went off, as Sarah says, “relatively seamlessly” thanks to months spent “cleaning” the records and tweaking the programming. She is satisfied that the new software “has come in as a strong and clear tool.” Sarah gets excited talking about all that is possible now. The new system incorporates a ‘first’ for cemetery software: the ability to record and thus later search for the Hebrew names of decedents and even their parents. It will also be possible to generate yahrzeit dates and reminders for most individuals buried in our Cincinnati Jewish cemeteries.
Treasure in, treasure out
But, as always for a database, you can only get out what you have put in, and so much remains to be done. Here Strouse launches into her “show and tell” mode. She pulls out a very large antique-smelling book, opening it to a random page of what looks like calligraphy. It is the recorded history of local Jewish ancestors here — names and dates and places.
“Data” for all of our area's twenty-five Jewish cemeteries, for most of two centuries, was entered by hand in flowing script into books or cards kept by generations of congregational record keepers. Maps of burial sites were similarly made and kept by hand. Those physical records came to Jewish Cemeteries when it began operations in 2008. Jewish Cemeteries has acquired the first of several fireproof vaults to assure safekeeping of these extremely delicate books, rolled maps and eventually many other irreplaceable archival materials placed in its care. After the materials have been digitized and culled for relevant information for its records, Jewish Cemeteries hopes they can be transferred to the American Jewish Archives.
What energizes Sarah Strouse to do her cemetery work with such warmth, humor and drive is feeling that her job is at its core so “Jewish.” “Remembering. This is what makes us Jewish — we don’t forget where we came from. This is the work I get to do every day. I’m doing the work, so someone in a hundred years can know what happened here, who the people were, what they did. We’ve been here for 200 years, and we’ll be here at least 200 more.”