Rabbi Scott Kalmikoff can introduce you to your ancestral family in less than 24 hours, if he didn’t take any breaks. He can share your story by analyzing an ancestor’s name in a voter registration card or the community where they originated.
“People call me the Henry Louis Gates of the Jews,” Kalmikoff said with a chuckle.
Kalmikoff started his own genealogy business in 2020, where he conducts private research to find his clients’ roots. The rabbi is a lot more busy than he was three years ago as was recently named the community engagement director of The Riverdale Y.
“Genealogy with Rabbi Scott” stemmed from his childhood living in Staten Island and his close relationships with his grandparents — he grew up in a two-family household and they were on the first floor. His grandparents would share stories about their lives and family history. This encouraged him to create his own tree at the age of 16.
Kalmikoff traced his family back to as early as the 1600s and discovered roots in Belarus, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Lithuania and Wales. The newly discovered research didn’t stop him from traveling to these countries to learn its history and even meet distant relatives.
According to his website, in Israel he found a Passover Haggadah — a Jewish text that is used during the Passover meal — that was composed by his great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather in Germany.
“Now when I go home, instead of binge-watching Netflix or something like that, I sit on my couch researching family trees,” he said.
He is taking it slow and has cut down the number of clients from six to one as he started The Riverdale Y job.
“Some friends that I knew at my Rabbinical School sent me the job description, and I said this has my name all over it,” Kalmikoff said. “I visited and met the team here and I feel very positive about my experience.”
He spent four years in Yeshivat Chovevei Torah — a Rabbinical school in Riverdale. That experience gave the Staten Island resident familiarity with the neighborhood and community.
But Rabbinical school was not his only participation in the community. During his four years in Riverdale, he was the coordinator and lead educator for the L’Dor V’Dor summer internship program at RiverSpring Health at the Hebrew Home.
L’Dor V’Dor is an annual summer internship for young teens to instill the Jewish value of caring for the elderly and building connections in generations. In the summer, around one dozen interns would have friendly visits with nursing home residents.
The Y has run a similar program for the past few summers and will continue this coming summer.
For most people “in the Orthodox community, it’s very common for young people to marry and move to Riverdale, he said. “I have many friends who live here and there’s really a thriving community here in Riverdale,” he said.
“I thought this was like just a perfect opportunity to work in a thriving Jewish community. Riverdale is growing. There’s a lot going on here. And I want to be part of them.”
As a community-focused person, Matt Abrams Gerber, the chief operating officer, spoke to The Y’s leadership team in 2016 — about a year after he started his position — to discuss how the Y “presents itself as more of the convener of the Jewish community.”
The motivation was to create a stronger Jewish community regardless of age, race, country of origin, gender and more. Sharing resources and building bridges.
Eventually, The Y began Riverdale Jewish Community Partnership. Its mission? It exists to serve as a “vehicle for Riverdale Jewish institutions,” according to its website.
“We’re not a religious institution, but we are the best connecting points and that’s what Jewish community centers do,” said Abrams Gerber. Community centers are “really the ones who try to connect everybody — the Jewish community and beyond.”
In 2016, UJA- Federation gave the Y a small grant and in December 2017, the federation gave a multi-year grant.
In December 2016 they connected with 17 other Jewish institutions in the neighborhood from a broad spectrum of religious affiliations at a Havdalah event — a Jewish ceremony held on Saturday night marking the end of the Sabbath, funded by UJA.
Once that was a hit, The Y worked closely with UJA to continue supporting efforts in connecting the Jewish communities in the northwest Bronx.
“At the end of 2017, UJA-Federation gave a grant to fund a director of community engagement position at the Y, whose role would be to facilitate stronger relationships between the local Jewish institutions and help connect Jews of all backgrounds and affiliations in the community,” Abram Gerber said.
The UJA granted $310,000 to The Y to fund the position for five years, a UJA spokesperson said.
The grant also helps fund the Friday night shabbat dinner at the Y, which are usually multi-coursed meals, including: bread, fish, meat or chicken, side dishes and sometimes dessert.
These events were happening prior to the hiring the director. “But it’s much easier for everybody to participate when there’s somebody who’s going to be the organizer,” Abrams Gerber said.
“In February of 2018 is when the first person actually was hired. Rabbi Joseph Robinson was here until the end of August. We hired Rabbi Scott Kalmikoff in the beginning of March,” Abrams Gerber said.
After Passover, which runs from Wednesday, April 5 to Thursday, April 15, there will be “Yoms,” which is Hebrew for “days” in English.
They are Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day; Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and victims of terror in Israel; and Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day.
“What I love is community building and bringing people together and being able to celebrate our differences, but also celebrating those things that really unify us,” Kalmikoff said.
As the position evolved, The Y continued to strengthen relationships with the Jewish community and institutions in the interfaith community.
“Part of The Y’s mission, using this role as a driver, is to help take this relationship-building work to the next level,” Abrams Gerber said.
Since Passover, Easter and Ramadan are roughly the same time of the year, The Y plans an interfaith gathering for Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders.
“We want to get more connected and to talk about how hate is affecting their communities and what can we do to support each other? How do we build relationships going forward?” Abrams Gerber said.