Over the past decade, genetic testing has become widely adopted by the genealogical community to confirming or disproving family relationships among individuals for whom there was insufficient documentary evidence. Until the past few years, genealogical testing was limited to examining mitochondria and the Y chromosome among males. The Y studies were probative of a direct male-male line, and a mitochondrial study illuminated a direct female-female line, but they did not aid in evaluating relationships in the numerous other lineages carried by any particular individual and only rarely helped establish how closely two people were related to one another.
[Ed. Note: Due to the significance that we attach to this subject, we have taken the unusual step of publishing this article simultaneously both online and in our separate print publication AVOTAYNU.]
During the last four years, the testing of autosomal DNA has become increasingly popular. By examining hundreds of thousands of genetic pairs across 22 of the 23 chromosomes, it enables matching that is independent of gender and has the potential to be highly specific. The power of autosomal DNA as a vehicle for genealogical research was amply demonstrated in the article “Reuniting a Family by DNA,” by Mark E. Strauss in the Winter 2014 issue of AVOTAYNU, in which he described how disconnected individuals using three different DNA companies found DNA in common and reunited a family scattered to the four corners of the globe following the Shoah.
Although autosomal DNA is immensely powerful, its usefulness for making links beyond the paper trail diminishes by half with each generation. This effect is magnified among Ashkenazi Jews, where past traditions of cousin marriage (endogamy) have created increasing genetic complexity among our current generations. So from any standpoint, time is not on our side.
The urgency of our work is magnified by the fact that the legitimacy of the Jewish people and its claim to our ancestral home is currently under constant pseudo-historical attack. The media, particularly on the web, carries regular features from enemies of Israel describing theories to the effect that Ashkenazi Jews have no connection to the land of Israel and are, in fact, European and Central Asian interlopers.
The Y-chromosome studies demonstrably prove otherwise — a majority of Ashkenazi male lineages are from the Middle East. As the various publicly known DNA test providers have assembled Jewish DNA databases — not just FamilyTreeDNA but my colleagues at 23andMe and Ancestry as well — we have found unmistakable evidence that Ashkenazi Jews are closely related to one another, meaning that from a genetic standpoint, all Jews are indeed part of one genetically united people with ample Middle Eastern and Mediterranean forebears.
For both these reasons — the value of having the oldest possible generations tested for genealogical reasons, and having the largest sample tested for sociopolitical reasons — it is imperative that we launch a campaign to make DNA testing not the exception but the rule among the oldest representatives of our Jewish families worldwide.
Our timing could not be better. Prices for DNA testing of certain specificity have come down substantially in recent years, while the specificity of tests has greatly increased. Autosomal DNA is particularly inexpensive to test.
Furthermore, in the four years since autosomal DNA became available, powerful tools for analyzing autosomal DNA have become available and are continuing to improve. As a result, the quality of analysis has become far greater. With larger, more systematically developed DNA databases, the value of DNA research will increase greatly.
When asked to describe my ambitions, I have said that I would like to shift from a “Genetic Survey of the Jewish People” to a “Genetic Census of the Jewish People,” in which the eldest members of each of our families are DNA tested for autosomal DNA results and, where possible, to test Y and mitochondrial DNA as well.
A decade of experience with Y and mitochondrial DNA, and four years of experience with autosomal DNA, has generated dozens of Jewish DNA projects led by volunteer managers with experience in analyzing DNA results and working with groups being tested. Likewise, the capacity of our for-profit DNA firms and nonprofit DNA affinity organizations has increased, with increasing customer service staffs, webinars and conferences being offered throughout the year.
From a feasibility standpoint, there has never been a better time than now to conduct a genetic study of the Jewish people.
The growth of social networking among all age groups has made the search for suitable DNA project participants easier than ever. It is not unusual to find Jewish genealogy projects on Facebook with thousands of active participants, and DNA-related social networking outlets abound.
Autosomal DNA allows both male and female members of a family to be tested. This vastly increases the number of individuals who can be meaningfully tested within a particular family and allows comparison across genders and between families.
A decade of DNA analysis on popular television programs such as Who Do You Think You Are?, Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, and Genealogy Roadshow has greatly increased public acceptance of DNA-based genealogy and made it easier than ever to recruit DNA project participants.
For the reasons outlined above, a confluence of factors — the passing of our oldest and most valuable generations, the improving quality of our DNA tests and analytical tools, and the increasing feasibility of recruiting participants together show us our path forward. The time has come to undertake a DNA Census of the Jewish People, a mission that is important, feasible and urgent. Given the importance of this effort, I am delighted to report that in an earlier article in Avotaynu Online [see “Announcing Avotaynu Online”], longtime genetic genealogist Adam Brown announces the formation of a joint Avotaynu Foundation/Avotaynu Online project to foster the development of academic-quality DNA studies of the Jewish people using databases of exactly the type that I propose.
What is the next step? I encourage readers to visit the Web page established at http://www.AvotaynuOnline.com/avotaynu-foundation-dna-project/ for a more detailed description of the project, as well as instructions for joining, by either submitting an entirely new DNA test or by using the test sample submitted previously to FamilyTreeDNA, 23andMe or Ancestry.
*Behar DM, Garrigan D, Kaplan ME, Mobasher Z, Rosengarten D, Karafet TM, Quintana-Murci L, Ostrer H, Skorecki K, Hammer MF. (2004). “Contrasting patterns of Y chromosome variation in Ashkenazi Jewish and host non- Jewish European populations”. Hum Genet 114 (4): 354 — 365. doi:10.1007/s00439-003-1073-7. PMID 14740294.
Photographs by Adam Brown 2015