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Sallyann Amdur Sack

b. March 13, 1936

by Gary Mokotoff
Last updated June 23, 2021

Widely regarded as the "godmother" of Jewish genealogy, Sallyann Amdur Sack first began to explore her family's roots at the behest of her youngest daughter, and later went on to found the Jewish Genealogy Society of Greater Washington and the journal Avotaynu: The International Review of Jewish Genealogy.

Institution: Avotaynu, Inc.

In Brief

Sallyann Amdur Sack is an American genealogist and psychologist. She was instrumental in founding the International Institute for Jewish Genealogy, the Jewish Genealogy Society of Greater Washington (founding president), the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies, and Avotaynu: The International Review of Jewish Genealogy. Sack has chaired or co-chaired seven of the annual conferences on Jewish genealogy, authored seven books of use to genealogists, and consulted on numerous projects. A recipient of IAJGS Lifetime Achievement Award, she is a clinical psychologist in private practice, having received her degrees from Harvard University (Phi Beta Kappa) and George Washington University.

“I had never quite experienced serendipity until the Jewish genealogy ‘bug’ bit me in 1977. The first “how-to” Jewish genealogy book had just appeared: Finding our Fathers by Dan Rottenberg. My 15-year-old daughter, Kathy, had just returned from spending the summer at a debate camp where she learned all about how to do research. She found the Rottenberg book while browsing in a book store and bought it because my maiden name, Amdur, was listed in the index of several hundred typically Jewish family names. Returning home, she handed me the book and said, ‘Here I bought you a present. I want to learn all about my ancestors.’ I was so delighted to have this teenager talk to me, let alone want to do something together that I dropped everything and started to do everything the book advised. We wrote letters to all known and ‘maybe’ relatives and (because we lived in suburban Washington, D.C.) began to haunt the Hebraic Section of the Library of Congress and nearly go blind scrolling microfilm readers at the National Archives. Then the inevitable happened: Kathy got a boyfriend and lost interest in our project. I was left to respond to all who had answered out letters—and somewhere in the process of doing that, the ‘bug’ bit. Then I knew that this was what I had been seeking all my life. The pursuit of Jewish genealogy combines my love of being Jewish, my passion for history, my curiosity about people, and my addiction to mysteries. It offers the opportunity to research and write my own personal mystery—my specific family’s history. The bug bit hard, and nothing in my life has been the same since,” says Sallyann Amdur Sack, reflecting on twenty years’ involvement with the topic.

The contemporary pursuit of Jewish genealogy as a popular, worldwide movement began in the 1970s. Sometimes called the “godmother” of Jewish genealogy, Sack has played a major role in its development as a pioneer, leader, and creative force.

Early Life & Family

Born on March 13, 1936, in Cleveland, Ohio, she is the older of two daughters of Max and Frances (Steinsnider) Amdur. Her parents were children of Eastern European immigrants who had come to the United States during the first decade of this century, the Amdurs from Lithuania, the Steinsniders from Poland and Hungary with a detour through Canada, where Frances was born. Max Amdur, an organizer for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union, taught his daughters the importance of taking responsibility for making important things happen, an influence Sack cites as seminal to her leadership in the field of genealogical research.

She was valedictorian of her class at Cleveland Heights High School and attended Radcliffe College, where she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and graduated magna cum laude in 1957. She married Lawrence C. Sack in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1956. They raised three children. Their son, Robert Ira Sack, M.D., is a psychiatrist like his father. Daughter Elizabeth Felber is an attorney. The youngest daughter, Kathryn Solomon (who first stimulated Sack’s interest in tracing the family roots) is a radiologist. Lawrence Sack died in 2003 and Sack married Irwin Pikus in 2008.

Growing Interest in Genealogy

In 1972, Sack earned a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the George Washington University and opened a full-time private practice in Bethesda, Maryland. In 1980, she founded the Jewish Genealogy Society of Greater Washington and served as its first president. In 1984, she organized the first international seminar on Jewish genealogy, held in Jerusalem. In 1985, she cofounded AVOTAYNU: The International Review of Jewish Genealogy, widely considered the “voice” of Jewish genealogy. She is president of Avotaynu, Inc., the parent company of the journal, which publishes books, monographs, and microfilm publications on Jewish genealogy.

Among other activities, Sack has conducted a weeklong seminar in Moscow and has served on a number of advisory boards, including the Dorot Genealogy Center at Beth Hatefutsoth Museum in Tel Aviv. She also co-produced and co-hosted the cable program “Tracing Your Family Roots.” Sack also was active in the groundbreaking effort of the U.S. National Archives to open former Soviet archives to Jewish genealogical researchers. In 2004, she co-founded the International Institute for Jewish Genealogy in Jerusalem and served as first Chairman of the Board. In 2018 she presented in the “Genealogy and Science” symposium at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, Israel.

Legacy

The International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies presented its Lifetime Achievement Award to Sack in 2000, “In deep appreciation of her contributions to the world of Jewish genealogy … Her leadership, scholarship, initiative and vision provide an example and inspiration to all Jewish genealogists … worldwide.”

In 2017, Sack left her private practice and she and her husband moved to Kendal at Hanover, a continuing care retirement community in Hanover, New Hampshire. She teaches a Jewish genealogy beginner course in the Osher program at Dartmouth College and has organized a Jewish genealogy study group at the local Jewish congregation.

Selected Works by Sallyann Amdur Sack

Avotaynu Guide to Jewish Genealogy, with Gary Mokotoff. New Haven, CT: Avotaynu, 2004.

Guide to Jewish Genealogical Research in Israel. Baltimore, MH: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1987; Rev. ed. 1995.

Index and Catalog to the Russian Consular Records, with Suzan Wynne (1987).

Search for the Family, with Mark Shulkin. Marsal Press, 1980.

Where Once We Walked: A Guide to the Jewish Communities Destroyed in the Holocaust (Revised Edition), with Gary Mokotoff. Orting, WA: Family Roots Publishing Co, 2002.

On Oldness: How to Successfully Navigate Old Age. New Haven, CT: Avotaynu, 2017.

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How to cite this page

Mokotoff, Gary. "Sallyann Amdur Sack." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 23 June 2021. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on July 27, 2021) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/sack-sallyann-amdur>.