by Becca Bakal & Carol Guzman
Rabbis wear many hats, from teaching to pastoral care to leading worship services. You may be surprised to learn that rabbis are also responsible for health education: The two largest American Jewish movements—Reform and Conservative—both encourage rabbis to share information about Jewish genetics with their congregants.
A new study in the Journal of Genetic Counseling investigated how this works in practice. Researchers surveyed Reform and Conservative rabbis across the U.S. to learn how education about Jewish genetics takes space in synagogues, and what rabbis know about these topics.
The study found that rabbis commonly discuss Jewish genetic disorders in premarital counseling sessions, but that community-wide education is not widespread. While over 90% of rabbis in the study had raised the topic in premarital counseling, only 28% said that their synagogues provided community programming about Jewish genetic disorders. 46% of respondents were interested in offering education sessions about Jewish genetics to congregants, so there is a 20 point gap between rabbis who are able to offer community-wide education about Jewish genetics and those who wish to do so.
The study also indicated that rabbis who are newer in the profession —those who have fewer than 20 years of experience —are more knowledgeable about Jewish genetics than those with 20 or more years’ experience. The study also found that rabbis who had attended an educational program on Jewish genetics had more knowledge of the topic. Because genetic screening technologies have changed immensely over the past 20 years, rabbis who were trained earlier may not have up-to-date information unless they seek it out.
These findings indicate that the Sarnoff Center’s educational supports can meet synagogue needs, increasing knowledge of Jewish genetic disorders, hereditary cancers and the importance of carrier screening and genetic counseling among clergy and congregants.
At the Sarnoff Center, we often hear from rabbis that they know it is important to educate their congregants about Jewish genetics, but that it is hard to make this education a priority when they lack time and up-to-date information on screening resources.
The Sarnoff Center is available to offer virtual (and when possible, in-person) community education for synagogues, as well as education for clergy to brush up on their knowledge of Jewish genetics. We aim to support clergy, synagogue staff and lay leadership in sharing this information by providing high-quality programming and educational resources.
Are you interested in having virtual Sarnoff Center programming for your community? We offer free programs and educational supports tailored to various audiences. For more information, contact us at JewishGenetics@juf.org.