Overlooking Jewish genetics a missed opportunity

Overlooking Jewish genetics a missed opportunity

Abby Wisse Schachter
Abby Wisse Schachter

You care about the Jewish people, right? If so, a major concern should be the health and welfare of the people, no?

One fundamental way of keeping the Jewish people whole, healthy and well is to understand the unique genetic profile carried within every Jew.

In an effort to protect and promote Jewish peoplehood, while taking into account the particular Jewish genetic profile, various Jewish communities have developed strategies to answer this challenge. In my hometown of Montreal, the kids in my Jewish day school (along with every other day school) were tested for the Tay-Sachs gene. The population of my elementary school was mostly Jewish kids of Eastern European descent, who were prime candidates for carrying the genetic disorder caused by a missing enzyme that results in the accumulation of a fatty substance in the nervous system. The result of being born with Tay-Sachs disease is disability and early death.

We got a phone call at home with the blood test results. It wasn’t a big deal, as I recall, except for the unusual experience of lining up in the school’s auditorium to get blood drawn. Other than that, there was no greater explanation of genetics or biology and no connection made between our individual genetic profile and how those unique genetic characteristics unified us with every other Jew then living and every other Jew that had come before us.

This seems to me now like a missed opportunity.

We understood at the time that whether we were carrying the Tay-Sachs gene was necessary information for the health and well-being of future children we might have. But we weren’t given any indication that this was useful information because it meant that Judaism was running in our veins, in our blood. That understanding of both the biology behind our genes as well as the Jewish history in our genes could have served as a positive way to connect us to our heritage and each other.

Research published in the American Journal of Human Genetics in 2010 supports the theory that Jews are linked to their ancestors and to each other. “Our study,” lead author Dr. Gil Atzmon wrote at the time, “demonstrated that the studied Jewish populations represent a series of geographical isolates or clusters with genetic threads that weave them together. … These threads were observed as identical strands of DNA that were shared within and between Jewish groups. Thus, over the past 3,000 years, both the flow of genes and the flow of religious and cultural ideas have contributed to Jewishness.”

Often when we think about Jewish peoplehood, it is difficult to find a single unifying concept that links all Jews. After all, we practice Judaism differently (if we practice at all) we live in different countries on different continents, and we may not even share a common language. But our blood does connect many of us, across all of those divisions. And as someone who received a Jewish education and who is committed to providing a Jewish education to my own children, I don’t want the opportunity to teach my kids what it means to be part of the Jewish people — klal yisrael — to be lost.  

These days, there are a lot more diseases and conditions listed as part of the Jewish genetic screening available to anyone of Jewish heritage who is in the early stages of pregnancy. But at that point, when you are with child, it is already late to be discovering your Jewish genes.

Pittsburgher Dodie Roskies (full disclosure: she’s my cousin) certainly thought it was too late, so she inaugurated an effort to offer free Jewish genetic screening to college students on the theory that knowledge is power.  Roskies wanted to educate the local student population about this very important aspect of their biology.

This effort to educate young Jews about their special place amongst the Jewish people should be offered to all members of the local Jewish community, however. Why isn’t every Jewish child in Pittsburgh, those receiving any sort of Jewish education — whether at a day school, an afternoon school or Sunday school — also receiving this information and education? They aren’t and they should. Jewish genetics isn’t just about the diseases and conditions that may or may not be passed down from generation to generation. Learning about Jewish genetics is a way of understanding something that links so many Jews.

It is time to redefine Jewish peoplehood in a positive and proactive way. “If we create a curriculum for, say, 11- and 12-year-olds that combines biology, genetics and Jewish history to inculcate and normalize the genetic link among Jews, Pittsburgh will have done a good service to its current Jewish population, especially the young, and to future generations who will be healthier as a result.

(Abby W. Schachter, a Pittsburgh-based political columnist, blogs at captainmommy.com.)