By Harriet P. Gross
I read that “millions of people around the world may discover they have Jewish roots as a result of Direct-to-Consumer DNA Testing” in a news release from an organization I’d never heard of before: The Jewish People Policy Institute.
It’s so easy to find things these days; I quickly located JPPI on the Web, and learned that it’s a Jerusalem-based nonprofit with the following mission: “…to ensure the thriving of the Jewish People and the Jewish civilization by engaging in professional strategic thinking and planning on issues of primary concern to world Jewry.”
The startling statement above comes from a recently released report on a JPPI study with the impressively intimidating title of “Crowd Sourced Genealogy and Direct-to-Consumer DNA Testing: Implications for the Jewish People.” The study was inspired by how popular and inexpensive home DNA tests have become, and what this now easy-to-acquire knowledge may mean for world Jewry.
Noah Slepkov, author of the study, believes that “These new developments in genealogy can offer opportunities for connecting, engaging and strengthening the bonds of the Jewish People.”
JPPI President Avinoam Bar-Yosef was quick to say that making converts to Judaism was not how the study’s findings should be used, but “the developments it discusses may help create an expanded circle of individuals with some Jewish roots that feels an affinity and identification with the Jewish people and the State of Israel.”
The report says that more than a billion people around the world now leaf out tens of millions of family trees. And it suggests “if individuals feel a connection to the Jewish community because of their ancestry, then learning more and celebrating their heritage could be considered a form of Jewish engagement. Strengthening these individuals’ sense of Jewish heritage, or deepening their knowledge of their ancestors’ beliefs and customs through these new tools, has the potential to reinforce their Jewish identity and lead to other forms of Jewish engagement.”
There is a lot to think about here. Is it true, as the report posits that DNA test results “have the power to deeply affect one’s self-conception of belonging to the Jewish people, especially if the individual is not involved in a Jewish community”? Is it possible that the increasing interest in Judaism of many American Hispanics today stems not from discovering the backgrounds of enduring family rituals, but from the results of DNA testing?
JPPI was founded in 2002 to tackle today’s issues that have implications for Judaism’s tomorrow. Five years later, it held a “Conference on the Future of the Jewish People” in Jerusalem, with 150 attendees from around the world. Shimon Peres was impressed, enough so to ask JPPI to plan and execute 2008’s “Facing Tomorrow,” the first Israeli President’s conference. This event drew 5,000 people from 45 countries, including such luminaries as George W. Bush, Tony Blair, Henry Kissinger and Elie Wiesel.
JPPI is a think-tank made up of 120 academics, professionals and lay leaders, with unassuming headquarters near a dormitory on the Givat Ram Campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Visitors are welcome, so if you are interested in the Institute’s current topics, you might want to make it a stop on your next visit to Israel. These topics include Israel-Diaspora Relations, American and European Jewry and Islam and the Arab World.
Prime Minister Netanyahu and his cabinet have been presented with this recommendation in JPPI’s report: “…that the Government of Israel, Jewish communities and major relevant Jewish organizations provide information and points of connection for individuals who have discovered some Jewish ancestry…”
But one line in that release continues to puzzle me: “This newly available technology must be safeguarded from becoming a device of alienation from the Jewish people.” What do you think the think-tank means by that?