The authors have considerable experience conducting DNA lineage studies, with a focus on Y-DNA studies of the world’s historic rabbinical lineages., , , ,  Each of these studies presents its own unique challenges. Two of the more challenging aspects that are common to all such studies are the difficulty in finding pedigreed descendants of a rabbinical lineage, and then, once they are identified and located, convincing them to take a DNA test.
In this article, we shall focus on the some of the difficulties that we have encountered in convincing pedigreed descendants to agree to take a DNA test, the predominant reasons why they are reluctant or refuse to test, and some of the strategies that we have found effective in dealing with these difficulties and in encouraging them to test.
Although most pedigreed descendants whom we invite to join our DNA studies and to take a DNA test give us their full cooperation, a significant proportion of them either are reluctant to take a DNA test or simply refuse to do so. This can be a major problem when only a small number of pedigreed descendants of a rabbinical lineage under study can be identified and located.
There are many reasons why pedigreed descendants either are reluctant or refuse to take a DNA test. The various rationales that we have encountered in working with pedigreed descendants fall into the following six main categories:
- Lack of interest in genealogy/genetic testing
- Cost considerations
- Misunderstanding/mistrust of DNA testing
- Fear of what the results of DNA testing will show
- Privacy concerns
- Religious objections
Lack of Interest in Genealogy/Genetic Testing
Although it is often difficult to fathom, especially for a genealogist, some pedigreed descendants have absolutely no interest in genealogy, genetic testing, or learning more about their Jewish heritage. This lack of interest can be attributable to any number of reasons, among which are:
- A pedigreed descendant may believe that he already knows his heritage, and that DNA testing will not add any new information to what he already knows.
- The pedigreed descendant’s family may no longer be Jewish, and he may be uncomfortable exploring his Jewish heritage.
- The pedigreed descendant may have a painful event in his family’s past that he does not care to revisit, or he may be estranged from his family and may have no interest in learning more about his family’s heritage.
Lack of interest in genealogy/genetic testing is one of the more common reasons why some descendants refuse to take a DNA test. This refusal is generally indicated by a polite yet firm declaration that they are not interested in participating in the Y-DNA study. Occasionally, disinterested descendants will not respond to requests for testing, and they simply ignore all attempts at correspondence with them.
In our Y-DNA study of the Katzenellenbogen rabbinical lineage, we were dismayed when the only pedigreed descendant we identified who still bore the Katzenellenbogen surname refused to take a Y-DNA test. His family was no longer Jewish, and, for that reason, his wife harshly refused the test on his behalf, and rejected our efforts to contact him directly.
Some descendants do not understand the genealogical significance of their DNA test. It took us the better part of a year to convince a pedigreed descendant of the Shpoler Zeida to take a Y-DNA test. When we explained the critical importance of his Y-DNA test to the success of the entire study, he finally relented, and agreed to test.
This is not a simple issue to address, as it is difficult to motivate someone to take a DNA test if he has no personal interest in his family history or heritage, and no encouragement or support from family members to pursue testing.
Some pedigreed descendants are interested in learning more about their heritage and are willing to take a DNA test, but only if there is little or no cost involved. We reduce the cost of all Y-DNA tests for all pedigreed descendants by ordering their tests at a negotiated research discount rate, but for many of these descendants, the authors have found it necessary to fully sponsor their Y-DNA tests. Without this financial incentive, these descendants would most likely decline to test.
A potential participant in our forthcoming Y-DNA study on the lineage of Rabbi Raphael of Bershad  was not particularly interested in his rabbinical heritage, but was willing to be tested; however, he emphatically declared that he would not pay “one thin dime” for his test kit. Since his surname was a variant of the unique family name of Rabbi Raphael’s descendants, “Friedgant” (peace hand), we offered to pay for his test, and he did prove to match the other tested descendants.
Another candidate for that study, who also bore a variant of the family surname, was quite interested in his ancestry, but, as he explained his current circumstances, it became obvious that paying for the kit would be a financial hardship for him. In this case, our offer to sponsor his test kit changed a reluctant “no” to an enthusiastic “yes.”
This policy of sponsoring DNA tests for pedigreed descendants is consistent with one of the late Rabbi Malcolm Stern’s Ten Commandments in Genealogy: “If verifying data involves costs to others these should be reimbursed.”  Once a Y-DNA genetic signature of a rabbinical lineage has been identified, and the findings have been verified and published, it is significantly easier to persuade other descendants of the lineage to take a DNA test, and to cover the cost of the test themselves, as they see a direct benefit in connecting themselves to the lineage through DNA testing.
Misunderstanding/Mistrust of DNA Testing
Some descendants do not understand what DNA testing is, or what type of information it is designed to produce. Some of them have read misinformation about genetic testing, claiming that it is unreliable, and that its results cannot be believed. Other descendants mistakenly believe that a DNA test will reveal personal medical information that their employer or health insurance company can use to discriminate against them. It took us several months to convince one of our pedigreed descendants of Rabbi Menachem Nachum Twersky of Chernobyl to take a Y-DNA test, because he believed that his test would reveal personal medical information that his insurance company would use to raise his health insurance premiums, or to terminate his policy. That descendant has since tested, was found to match the Y-DNA genetic signature of the Twersky Chassidic dynasty, and was overjoyed with the results of his test.
Providing basic information on the nature of DNA testing to these descendants, together with links to previously published DNA studies, can help establish credibility and encourage them to test, although some are very intractable in their beliefs.
Fear of What the Results of DNA Testing Will Show
Two of Rabbi Stern’s Ten Commandments in Genealogy state that: “Family traditions must be interpreted with caution and only used as clues,” and “Thou shalt clearly label the questionable and the fairy tale.”  Y-DNA genetic testing, which was not available during Rabbi Stern’s lifetime, is very useful for just this purpose – separating fact from the questionable, and the fairy tale.
However, some pedigreed descendants are reluctant to take a DNA test because they are afraid of what the results of the testing might show. They may know that there is a gap or an uncertainty in their line of descent, or they may suspect that their line passes through a maternal ancestor.
This was the case for one potential participant in our forthcoming study on the lineage of Rabbi Raphael of Bershad. His family lore claimed descent from Rabbi Raphael. There was some uncertainty in the lineage, however, because his great-great-grandfather had changed his surname, and the family did not know the original surname. Although the descendant was very interested in his family history, he decided not to participate in our study because he thought that he might be descended from the rabbi through a maternal ancestor, and he did not want to confirm his suspicion by testing his Y-DNA.
In some cases, descendants of a rabbinical lineage may know, or strongly suspect, that their yichus (pedigree) claims may be exaggerated. There may be a weak link or missing generation in the lineage, and unfounded or unsubstantiated assumptions made regarding who that ancestor was. These descendants generally have an impressive yichus that was passed down through the generations by oral history, and they do not want to place that yichus in danger of being disproved by Y-DNA testing.
We encountered an example of this in our study of a branch of the Savran-Hager family, which claims paternal descent from the Savraner rabbis of the Savran-Bendery Chassidic dynasty.
The Savran-Bendery Chassidic dynasty was founded by the sons of Rabbi Shimon Shlomo I (c. 1750 – 1802) of Savran; Rabbi Moshe Tzvi Giterman of Savran (c. 1775 – 1838), and his brother, Rabbi Aryeh Leib Wertheim of Bendery (c. 1772 – 1854). In our Y-DNA study of the Savran-Bendery Chassidic dynasty, we tested pedigreed descendants of both rabbis and identified the Y-DNA genetic signature of the lineage.
The Savran-Hager dynasty claims that their paternal ancestor, Rabbi Baruch (born c. 1820) was a son of Shimon Shlomo Giterman II (c. 1811–1848), son of Rabbi Moshe Tzvi Giterman of Savran, and a descendant of the Baal Shem Tov, through Shimon Shlomo’s wife, Feyga Yenta (née Vulis.)
It took nearly two years to find two descendants from different branches of the Savran-Hager family who were willing to take a Y-DNA test. They were tested and their Y-DNA was found to match each other. However, their Y-DNA did not match the Y-DNA genetic signature or haplogroup of the pedigreed descendants of the Savraner rabbis, from which their family claims to be paternally descended.
This finding led us to take a closer look at the Hager family tree, and to research the documentation of their descent from the Giterman lineage. We concluded that based upon the Y-DNA evidence, the genealogical evidence, and his year of birth, Rabbi Baruch cannot be a son of Shimon Shlomo II, and a paternal grandson of Rabbi Moshe Tzvi Giterman. He cannot, therefore, be a descendant of the Baal Shem Tov through Shimon Shlomo’s wife, Feyga Yenta Vulis. We believe that Rabbi Boruch was most likely the son of Rabbi Moshe Tzvi’s daughter, Vitya Feyga.
This may explain the difficulty that we encountered in finding Savran-Hager descendants who were willing to take a Y-DNA test. Yichus plays a very important role in determining leadership positions in Chassidic dynasties, and the descendants who refused to test may have known that their paternal descent from the Savraner rabbis was suspect, and that it could be disproven by Y-DNA testing.
Reluctance to take a DNA test due to fear of what the results will show is a difficult issue to overcome, as this trepidation may be very well founded. When this issue arises, we try to counsel descendants that it is always preferable to separate fact from fiction, and to know the truth regarding their lineage, and who they are descended from, rather than to believe in unfounded or exaggerated yichus claims. To quote the fourth of Rabbi Stern’s Ten Commandments in Genealogy: “Thou shalt not hang nobility or royalty on your family tree without verifying with experts.” 
Privacy concerns are a big issue for some descendants, especially those who are religious. They are concerned how the results of their DNA tests will be used, and who will have access to them. Some are reluctant to have their results shared with their genetic matches, posted to a genealogy website, or published in a journal article.
One way that we address privacy concerns is to assure our study participants that their DNA results will remain confidential, and that they will not be shared with any outside party or published in a journal article without their written permission. At a descendant’s request, we will also remove personal identifiers from his DNA data to protect his identity.
These strategies are in keeping with another of Rabbi Stern’s Ten Commandments in Genealogy: “Thou shalt credit those who help you and ask permission of those whose work you use.”  They help to reassure some descendants, but others remain skeptical and refuse to test because of privacy concerns.
Because we are testing pedigreed descendants of rabbinical lineages, some of them are quite religious. This can lead to a reluctance to test based on religious beliefs or principles. Some Chassidic Jewish men will seek the permission of either their fathers or their rabbis before agreeing to take a Y-DNA test. Rabbis are divided on the question of whether DNA testing is compatible with Halachic law (the collective body of Jewish religious laws derived from the written and oral Torah). Some will give their permission to test, and some will not. It is rare for a descendant to override the decision of his father or rabbi.
In these cases, we often enlist a member of the rabbinical or Chassidic community to reach out to these descendants, and to assist in explaining the purpose of taking a Y-DNA test and the procedure involved in obtaining the sample.
Recently, we attempted to contact several pedigreed maternal descendants of Malka Twersky, the daughter of Rabbi Menachem Nachum Twersky (founder of the Twersky Chassidic dynasty) and his wife, Sarah Shapira, and we invited them to participate in our proposed mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) study.
The purpose of this pioneering mitochondrial DNA study was to identify the mtDNA genetic signature of the maternal line of a famed rabbinical dynasty. The maternal descendants were contacted by one of our study investigators, Yitzchak Twersky, who is, himself, a pedigreed descendant of the Twersky Chassidic dynasty.
Unfortunately, none of the maternal descendants who were contacted agreed to test. They indicated that based on religious grounds, it was immodest and inappropriate for a man to contact them for this purpose.
Recently, our co-investigator, Susan Steeble, discussed DNA testing with a Chassidic friend. Her friend indicated that she would be willing to be tested if there was a medical or humanitarian reason for doing so, especially to help others, but that she would not test out of mere curiosity or to find distant relatives.
Summary and Conclusions
Conducting DNA studies of rabbinical lineages presents several unique challenges. Identifying pedigreed descendants of the lineage is only half the battle; the other half is convincing them to take a DNA test. Although most of these descendants are very cooperative with our DNA lineage project goals and testing protocols, a significant proportion of them either are reluctant to take a DNA test or refuse to do so.
The main reasons that descendants refuse to test include: lack of interest, cost considerations, mistrust of DNA testing, fear of what the results of DNA testing will show, privacy concerns, and religious objections. Based on our experience conducting numerous DNA studies, we have implemented a variety of strategies for alleviating some of these objections and concerns. These strategies conform to the IAJGS Ethics/Code of Conduct, which incorporate the late Rabbi Malcolm Stern’s Ten Commandments in Genealogy.
We provide basic DNA testing information and links to previous DNA studies to help educate descendants, alleviate mistrust, and demonstrate the value of DNA testing. We also provide discounted research rates and sponsor Y-DNA tests for those pedigreed descendants who have financial hardships, or who would decline to test if they had to bear the full cost of the test themselves.
We approach all descendants with sensitivity to their privacy concerns, giving them assurances that their data will not be shared or published without their written permission. We also approach religious descendants with respect for their religious principles and beliefs by having rabbis and other members of the religious community contact them and explain the nature and purpose of the DNA testing program to them. Because many of our pedigreed descendants live in other countries, such as Israel or Russia, it is important to communicate with them in their native language.
Although it is not realistic to expect perfect DNA testing compliance from all pedigreed descendants of rabbinical lineages, we have found that by: (1) communicating with pedigreed descendants before broaching the subject of DNA testing, (2) establishing credibility by clearly explaining the purpose of our DNA lineage studies and providing them with appropriate information, and (3) addressing any privacy and religious concerns that they may have, we stand a much better chance of gaining their trust and cooperation.
 Jeffrey Mark Paull: “Connecting to the Great Rabbinic Families through Y-DNA: A Case Study of the Polonsky Rabbinical Lineage.” AVOTAYNU: The International Review of Jewish Genealogy, Vol. XXIX, No. 3, Fall, 2013.
 Jeffrey Mark Paull and Jeffrey Briskman: “Connecting to the Great Rabbinic Families through Y-DNA: The Savran-Bendery Chassidic Dynasty.” Surname DNA Journal, May 31, 2015. https://www.academia.edu/7275345/Y-DNA_Genetic_Signature_of_the_Savran-Bendery_Chassidic Dynasty Connecting to_the_Great Rabbinic_Families_through_Y-DNA.
 Jeffrey Mark Paull, Neil Rosenstein, and Jeffrey Briskman: “The Y-DNA Genetic Signature and Ethnic Origin of the Katzenellenbogen Rabbinical Lineage.” Avotaynu Online, March 7, 2016. https://www.avotaynuonline.com/2016/03/y-dna-genetic-signature-ethnic-origin-katzenellenbogen-rabbinical-lineage/.
 Jeffrey Mark Paull and Jeffrey Briskman: “Identifying the Genetic Fingerprint of a Tzaddik that Touched the World: The Shpoler Zeida.” Avotaynu Online, July 1, 2016. https://www.avotaynuonline.com/2016/07/identifying-the-genetic-fingerprint-of-a-tzaddik-that-touched-the-world-the-shpoler-zeida/.
 Jeffrey Mark Paull, Jeffrey Briskman, and Yitzchak Meyer Twersky: “The Y-DNA Genetic Signature of the Twersky Chassidic Dynasty.” Academia.edu: https://jhsph.academia.edu/JeffreyMarkPaull (Pre-publication draft). Accepted for publication in Avotaynu Online. Expected date of publication, December, 2016.
 The Y-DNA testing compliance rate varies widely between studies. In some of our smaller lineage studies involving five or fewer pedigreed descendants (e.g., Baal Shem Tov, Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, Polonsky, Rappaport-Cohen, Shpoler Zeida, Wertheim-Giterman), we achieved close to 100 percent compliance. In some of our larger lineage studies (e.g., Katzenellenbogen, Shapiro, Twersky Chassidic dynasty) the Y-DNA testing compliance rate dropped to as low as 50 percent. In our proposed maternal DNA study of the descendants of Sarah Shapira, the testing compliance rate was effectively zero.
 The Y-DNA study of Rabbi Raphael of Bershad is one of several Y-DNA studies currently underway for which we have tested pedigreed descendants. The others, as mentioned above, include the lineages of the Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, Rabbi Yehuda Heller Kahana of Sighet, and the Rappaport-Cohen, and Shapiro rabbinical lineages. For all but one of these lineages (Shapiro), we have also preliminarily identified the Y-DNA genetic signature of the lineage.
 Gary Mokotoff and Sallyann Amdur Sack: “Rabbi Malcolm H. Stern (1916-1994), Dean of American-Jewish Genealogy.” AVOTAYNU: The International Review of Jewish Genealogy, Vol. IX, No. 4, Winter 1993.
 Jeffrey Mark Paull and Jeffrey Briskman: “Connecting to the Wertheim-Giterman Rabbinical Lineage through Y-DNA.” AVOTAYNU: The International Review of Jewish Genealogy, Vol. XXX, No. 3, Fall, 2014.
 Gary Mokotoff and Sallyann Amdur Sack, 1993, Op cit.
 Shlomo Brody: “Ask the Rabbi: DNA and Paternity Testing: Does Halacha Recognize Paternity Tests?” The Jerusalem Post, June 11, 2009, http://www.jpost.com/Jewish-World/Judaism/Ask-the-Rabbi-DNA-and-paternity-testing.