CJG Blog

Center for Jewish Genetics blog

The 2019 URJ Biennial in Numbers:

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By Carol Guzman

This December, the Norton & Elaine Sarnoff Center for Jewish Genetics had the opportunity to share our mission and work at the Union for Reform Judaism Biennial conference. More than 5,000 clergy members, leaders, and exhibitors from across the country came together to learn, network, worship and make decisions about the policies of the Reform movement. The URJ Biennial took place in Chicago and the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago served as a Gold Sponsor for this year’s conference.

The Sarnoff Center exhibited at the Kikar area right outside of the exhibition hall with 150 other organizations. Sarnoff Center staff switched shifts throughout the conference, connecting with many attendees from all around the world.  By the end of the weekend 26 organizations in 14 different states requested additional Sarnoff Center educational materials that they plan to share with their respective communities.

Educating the Jewish community about Jewish genetic health is our main mission, so we couldn’t help but bring along some of our print materials and awesome swag. Throughout the conference we distributed:

  • 193 lunch bags
  • 50 water bottles
  • 150 Hereditary Cancer Brochures
  • 125 Interfaith Brochures
  • 127 Jewish Genetic Disorder Brochures
  • 196 lip balms
  • 67 fun sized chocolate bars

Our staff connected with various organizations that seek to provide services to the people in the Jewish community and we had the pleasure of reconnecting with partner organizations who also focus on genetic health, such as the Victor Center. We are excited to see what our new connections from the URJ will bring as we continue to strive to advocate for genetic health in the Jewish community!

Almost Family and Genetic Testing

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By: Carol Guzman

Warning: Light spoilers for "Almost Family" ahead.

More than 26 million people have taken consumer DNA tests worldwide, making it easier than ever to uncover familial information. Finding a cousin or an uncle twice removed might be fun, but what if your results show you that your biological parent is not the person you expected? A new show highlights this rare but disturbing reality that genetic testing can bring to light. 

In the Fox TV series “Almost Family,” Julia Bechley’s world is turned upside-down after her father, Leon, a renowned fertility specialist, is publicly accused of using his own sperm to impregnate patients at his clinic. Julia offers free DNA paternity testing to anyone that suspects Leon to be their father and finds out she has a least 100 half siblings. Julia begins to rekindle a bond with two half-sisters: Edie, a criminal-defense attorney representing Leon, and Roxy, a retired Olympic gymnast. Some other half siblings include Julia’s former romantic partner, an Orthodox Jewish woman, and a gay man who is starting to consider beginning his own family.  

Rather than focusing on Leon Bechley’ hideous actions, the show focuses on the intersection of genetics and family. Does sharing genetic material with someone else automatically garner a deeper familial relationship? While other half siblings are weaved within the series, each identified by nervously tapping their teeth, a tick Julia, Edie and Roxy all share, they all reach out to Julia asking for various information. One sibling asks for Leon’s family health history, another pleads for stories of his past, but rarely does anyone demands answers or showcases anger. While Almost Family may not treat this subject matter with finesse, Julia does understand that her half siblings “…had their lives disrupted, changed by the miracle of DNA testing.” 

While “Almost Family” isn’t based on a true story, it does raise some hard questions that we will only continue to struggle with as genetic testing and technologies advance and become more accessible. As more and more American’s take direct to consumer test to find long lost family members, they are unknowingly making it easier for law enforcement and government agencies to use their genetic material against them and their relatives.   

In addition to discovering new family members, direct to consumer test’s health-related insights could reveal an increased risk for diseases and certain cancers. Take 23andMe, their Health Risk Test claims to screening for a gene that increases risk for Alzheimer’s disease, which is not preventable and currently has no known treatment. Should you be screened for a disease with no preventable or treatable action and fear a disease that might not emerge?  Should you tell your other family members, even those found through direct to consumer tests, about this newfound information?  

The age of genetic information has come, and it might bring about just a little more information than we are ready to handle.   


Affordable, Accessible Genetic Screening in Illinois

Our affordable, accessible carrier screening program uses advanced technology to provide comprehensive screening for Jewish and interfaith couples. Visit our Get Screened page to learn more and register.


Do You Know What's In Your Genes?

What is the most valuable gift you can give to your family? The gift of good health! There are many health conditions that run in families. Knowing your family health history can alert you to the potential risk for a variety of genetic disorders . Talk to your relatives for warning signs and assess your risk for hereditary cancers.

Did you know: Ashkenazi Jews are 10 TIMES more likely to have BRCA mutations, which significantly increases lifetime risks for hereditary cancers, so what does this heightened risk mean for you? Click here to learn more .