Genetic Testing Kits Help People Discover Jewish Roots

“’As for Me, behold, My covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be the father of a multitude of nations.” (Genesis 17:4)

As genetic testing for genealogical purposes becomes ever more popular and publicly accessible, one Jewish think tank recommends Israel invest in this trend to strengthen Jewish ties to the land and the people.

The Jewish People Policy Institute, an independent professional policy planning group tasked with ensuring the Jewish people thrive globally, released a report on the increasingly-popular direct-to-consumer DNA test kits, suggesting they could be harnessed as a way of “connecting, engaging, and strengthening the bonds of the Jewish people.”

“Millions of people around the world may discover they have Jewish roots as a result of direct-to-consumer DNA testing,” says the report, entitled “Crowd Sourced Genealogy and Direct-to-Consumer DNA Testing: Implications for the Jewish People” and published in August.

“DTC DNA testing has the potential to inform one’s sense of identity, despite the controversial questions with political implications that may arise,” such as an individual discovering he does not have strong Jewish DNA results, after all.

Jews have always been open to genetic testing, it says, though interest has primarily been driven by a desire to find treatments and preventative measures for genetic diseases more prevalent among Jews, such as Tay-Sachs.  Perhaps it is the success of such research, the report suggests, that generates the positive attitude the Jewish community shows towards genetic testing, even for genealogical purposes.

JPPI sees these tests as an important tool for strengthening the connection of individuals to the Jewish community.  In the face of the recent Pew survey which showed the synagogue diminishing in its perceived importance for many Jews, “perhaps the virtual networks being created by those engaged in genealogical research offer a new form of Jewish involvement.”

The report also suggests using test results to foster stronger relationships with non-Jews who uncover a DNA connection.  According to JPPI president Avinoam Bar-Yosef, Israel has an interest in promoting these tests, not for the purpose of conversion, but to create an “expanded circle of individuals with some Jewish roots who feel an affinity and identification with the Jewish people and the State of Israel,” reported The Jerusalem Post on Sunday.

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The report does caution Jewish communities to be sensitive to outsiders approaching with new genetic connections.  “To learn from a test perceived to be scientific that you have Jewish heritage and to be told by a Jewish community that you are not really Jewish could be confusing and disheartening. Leaders of the Jewish community especially should not be dismissive of individuals who approach them claiming to be a distant relative; rather, they should use it as an opportunity for engagement.”

Michael Freund, Director of the Israel Returns organization which connects individuals with Jewish roots to their heritage, expanded on the importance of how technology enables people from all over the world to reclaim their heritage.

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Michael Freund of Shavei Israel

“In recent years, advances in technology have opened new horizons for people looking to dig deeper into their pasts and uncover more about their ancestry. The growing popularity of genetic testing kits is now making it possible for individuals and families to connect with their forefathers and learn more about their origins. Via these kits, many people are discovering that they have Jewish roots. This is an exciting development, as technology is being deployed to reconnect ‘lost Jews’ with the people of Israel,” Freund told Breaking Israel News.

“At Israel Returns, we are receiving large numbers of inquiries from people across the globe who have taken DNA tests and suddenly realize that they have a ‘Jewish connection’. This could prove to be a very powerful tool, because it will connect people in a very tangible way to the State of Israel and the Jewish people – not only emotionally and spiritually, but biologically too,” he explained.

Freund said that his organization is “currently researching how DNA findings might impact a person’s Jewish status as well as open up the possibility of their immigration to Israel.”

“Stay tuned – the importance of genetic testing will only continue to soar,” he added.

The JPPI report concludes that Israel should take an interest in current genetic research and access. “Just as the State of Israel has invested resources into the study and promotion of archeology, in part to demonstrate and strengthen the connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel, by investing in the fields of genetic research and molecular anthropology, Israeli scientists could be at the forefront of this growing field not only to demonstrate the historical connection of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel, but to help refute studies that manipulate data in order to undermine that connection.”