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2013-2014 Annual Assessment

Special thanks to Deborah A. Bolnick Ph.D, Dept. of Anthropology, University of Texas at Austin, for serving as scientific advisor on this chapter.

Interest in genealogical mapping has dramatically increased in recent years. New online tools are available for individuals to research their family history and collaborate with distant relatives to build family trees. Concurrently, advances in genetic research and computing technology have enabled direct-to-consumer (DTC) genealogical mapping through DNA analysis at affordable prices.

The possible existence of Jewish ancestry is among the many discoveries sometimes made by individuals taking advantage of these advances in genealogical mapping. Companies that provide DTC DNA testing even boast that their product can “infer whether or not and to what degree you may have Jewish ancestry”1 or “discover your Jewish ancestry.”2

DNA test results have led many consumers into exploring their newly discovered Jewish roots. Such developments offer exciting opportunities for connecting, engaging, and strengthening the bonds of the Jewish people.

According to Bennett Greenspan, President and CEO of Family Tree DNA, a leading company in the field, some people even convert to Judaism after discovering the possibility of Jewish ancestry in their DNA.3 By 2005 the New York Times observed that due to DNA tests, “embraces of Judaism are growing more common in parts of the (American) Southwest” among Hispanics who believe they are descendants of Marranos.4

Furthermore, Jewish genealogy, especially Ashkenazi genealogy, has been and continues to be the focus of many scientific studies aimed at determining the history and genealogical origins of Ashkenazi Jewry.

Few non-scientists can grasp the biology, algorithmic calculations, and probabilistic nature at the foundation of published genetic studies and consumer DNA tests. Still, as they gain widespread public attention, DTC DNA testing has the potential to inform one’s sense of identity, despite the controversial questions loaded with political implications that may arise.

The goal of this paper is to introduce readers to the tools available online for conventional genealogical research, the advances in genetic research, the types of results generated from DTC DNA tests, and the implications that these tools and developments could have on the Jewish people, such as:

  • Could these new tools affect connectedness of the Jewish people?
  • Could awareness among Jews that they are “distant cousins,” based on science, create or reinforce group solidarity?
  • How should individuals who believe they have discovered Jewish roots be treated by the Jewish community?
  • How do these developments influence the way Jewish identity is conceived?
  • Could these tools be used to strengthen an individual’s Jewish identity or lead to new forms of Jewish community involvement?
  • How can the Jewish people prevent DNA tests from becoming a device of alienation?

This paper is divided into five sections: a review of the advances and applications of genealogy research and genetic sciences; how these advances are affecting various non-Jewish population groups; the tools available online for genealogical research; a specific example of the types of results generated by DTC DNA tests; and the implications that these advances have on the Jewish people, both on the individual and collective level.

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