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Jewish Genealogy Vital Records
Vital records are sources of information for names; dates; and places of birth, marriage, and death. These records are called vital records because they refer to essential events in a person’s life.
Birth, marriage, and death records kept by the government in English-speaking areas of theUnited States and Canada are listed in the Family History Library Catalog under Vital Records. These include town (mostly in New England and New York), county, and state or provincial records. The same records for other parts of the world are listed under Civil Registration.
Although vital records for Jews in Europe and Latin America are all forms of civil registration, they are listed in various ways in the Family History Library Catalog. This can be understood historically in three steps:
Governments required the church books of the country’s established religion be the official record of births, marriages, and deaths. In some cases transcripts of these church records had to be sent to government offices. The established religion kept track of birth, marriage, and death records of all people in their areas, including people who did not belong to their church (like Jews). Church records served the needs of the church and the government. These records are listed in the Family History Library Catalog under Church Records.
- Between 1826–1835 Poland, Russia, and other Central and Eastern Europe countries required separate Jewish birth, marriage, and death records be kept in areas where several Jewish families lived. These records, along with church books for the rest of the population, made up civil registration; however, when such books have been microfilmed, they have been listed in the Family History Library Catalog under Jewish Records.
- Eventually most European countries set uplocal government offices to keep track of birth, marriage, and death information. These offices kept records separate and distinct from records kept by religious groups. These records have been listed in the Family History Library catalog under Civil Registration.
Depending on the time period and area you are researching, you may need to look for records in the catalog under all of the preceding headings. The rest of this article deals mostly with vital records kept in English-speaking areas of North America.
Because these records are indexed and include most of the population of a state or province, they are primary sources for genealogical research.
General Historical Background
The practice of recording vital statistics developed slowly throughout the United States and Canada. Marriages were generally the first vital records to be kept; the recording of births and deaths usually came later. Depending on the state or province, vital records may not exist prior to the early 1900s.
The earliest vital records usually consist of brief entries recorded in register books. Issuing certificates became a common practice beginning in the 20th century. Record keeping—whether by town, county, state, or Canadian province—was often incomplete until many years after each state or province created a statewide or province-wide registration system.
Information contained in vital records is similar to what is found in civil registration. See “Civil Registration” in this set of Wiki pages for details. Also see the United States Wiki pages, the Canada Wiki pages, and individual state and province Wiki pages in the areas where your ancestors lived for specific details about vital records.
Locating Vital Records
To obtain copies of birth, marriage, and death records, contact the state or province office of vital records or the appropriate clerk’s office in a city or county courthouse. Genealogical and historical societies and state and provincial archives may also have copies or transcripts of these records. To protect the rights of privacy of those living, restrictions are placed on the use or access of records. Some offices provide information only to the person whose records are sought or to family members when the person’s proof of death is furnished.
Details about how to obtain vital records can be found on the Internet by state and province. See Cyndi Howell’s web site for the area of interest:
Individual state and province Wiki articles for "Vital Records" or "Civil Registration" also have addresses of where to write. The easiest place to learn how to obtain up-to-date vital records information such as email addresses, fees, and ordering instructions is on the Internet using a search engine like Google for "(Name of the State) Vital Records".
For information on how to write for vital records, see “Civil Registration.”
Records at the Family History Library
The Family History Library has copies of many vital records (primarily those before 1920) and vital records indexes. Vital records included with town records are found in the Family History Library Catalog under Town Records and Vital Records.
- A CD-ROM index which includes birth, christening, and marriage information for the United States and Canada is discussed in “Genealogy”.
- The Social Security Death Index contains over fifty million records of deaths reported to the Social Security Administration from 1937 to 1998. The bulk of the records are from 1962 and later. The index provides the decedent’s names, birth date social security number, state where the social security card was issued, month and year of death, state of residence at death, zip code, and state where the death benefit was sent. The index is available as part of FamilySearch at the Family History Library and most family history centers. It is also on the Internet or on compact disc from commercial companies. For details about the FamilySearch version see the U.S. Social Security Death Index Wiki page.