CJG Blog

Center for Jewish Genetics blog

Thanks for Giving Your Attention to Depression

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By Sari Steinberg and Miriam Ament 

In honor of November as Family Health History month, the Sarnoff Center and partner organizations are sharing information about certain health conditions that may run in families, and how to talk to your relatives about those conditions. You can find previous posts in this series here.   

You’re at Thanksgiving dinner and you notice that your niece Hannah is different.  You go through your mental checklist of signs and symptoms of depression, and she seems to be exhibiting five: irritable mood (she’s snapping at everyone); sense of worthlessness, guilt, or hopelessness (she’s refusing to apply to college); changes in diet, weight, or sleeping habits (she looks gaunt); loss of interest in favorite activities (she quit the basketball team); isolation from family and friends (she’s ignoring her cousins).  If those symptoms are ongoing, the probably indicate depression – whether or not she also has other symptoms such as an inability to focus, inability to make decisions, lack of energy, increased use of drugs and alcohol, and suicidal thoughts. 

A 2015 study by the Jewish United Fund’s Research Training Institute found that more than 25% of Chicago-area Jewish teenaged girls experience depression, and 75% of respondents reported knowing a teenage girl with a history of depression.  Depression is also prevalent among boys and adults. 

Depression often runs in families, with evidence pointing to a genetic predisposition, sometimes triggered by environmental factors such as childhood abuse.  Although scientists have not identified a single chromosome or a specific combination of genetics and circumstances, studies of twins and of adopted children have shown 40-50% heritability (Source: Stanford Medicine). 

Miriam Ament, who was hospitalized for depression in her late twenties and early thirties, has converted her depression from a paralyzing problem to a catalyzing condition.  After a decade of shame and fear, in part due to the unsympathetic reaction of a close friend, Miriam created No Shame On U, a nonprofit dedicated to eliminating the stigma and normalizing conversation surrounding mental health in the Jewish community and beyond.   

No Shame On U empowers family and friends with tips for approaching someone who has symptoms of depression.  For example: 

  • Do not tell the person to “snap out of it” 
  • Do not downplay the depression or say others have worse problems 
  • Listen, be supportive, and affirm the person’s worth 
  • Assure the person that this is not his/her fault 
  • Offer to help the person connect with a qualified professional
  • If the person displays warning signs of suicide, encourage him/her to seek help, or find someone who can provide it 

In addition, No Shame On U recommends programs such as Mental Health First Aid, a carefully designed curriculum that can help your family notice and respond in the best possible manner if your niece Hannah – or any other relative or friend – is struggling with depression. 

Thanksgiving is a great time to be with family. While genes may predispose people to have depression, the good news is that knowing how to spot symptoms and how to be supportive can also run in families – through good habits of attention and mindful response. Relatives who have open conversations about their family’s mental health history increase the chances of early detection, diagnosis, and treatment and, in doing so, make life better for their loved ones and for themselves.  

You can learn more about family health history and find tools to capture yours here. If you have additional questions about genetic health conditions or family health history, please contact the Sarnoff Center at (312) 357-4718 or JewishGenetics@juf.org and ask to speak to our genetic counselor. For more information about depression and other mental health conditions, you can contact No Shame on U at http://www.noshameonu.org/.

Celebrate Family Health Month with Us!

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November is Family Health History Month. Because many families gather for Thanksgiving, it’s an ideal time to collect or update information about health conditions that impact your relatives. Knowing your family health history and sharing it with your healthcare provider can help identify whether you have any increased risk of certain health conditions and, if necessary, take steps to reduce that risk.

This month, we’ll explore several genetic conditions that may run in families, including:

  • Hereditary cancers
  • Mental health conditions
  • Jewish genetic disorders

We’ll focus on what we know – and, in some cases, don’t know – about inheritance of these conditions and how they may impact Jewish and interfaith families. Each post will feature a personal story as well as an overview of the condition and a conversation guide to talk to your relatives.

In addition to the genetic disorders we will feature this month, there are other health conditions that can run in families, such as certain types of heart disease, diabetes and others. When you talk to your family members about their health history, be sure to ask about all health conditions, including symptoms, age of diagnosis, and any lifestyle factors that may play a role.

We’ll update the blog with the next post in this series soon but if you are eager to get started, you can learn more about family health history and find tools to capture yours here. If you have additional questions about genetic health conditions or family health history, please contact the Sarnoff Center at (312) 357-4718 or JewishGenetics@juf.org and ask to speak to our genetic counselor.

Stay tuned! 

Reflecting on Yom Kippur Through the Lens of Genetics

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By Becca Bakal 

Much of the liturgy around Yom Kippur centers on the unknowns in our lives. In particular, the poem Unetanah Tokef, which we read on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, focuses on the mysteries of the future. The poem describes how each person’s fate is written and sealed during the High Holidays, including who will live, who will die, and how they will pass on. The text also lists various blessings and challenges that may be part of someone’s life.  

This metaphor of fate being “inscribed” in the Book of Life or the Book of Death is similar to how people often talk about their genetics. On more than one occasion, I’ve had a friend with a strong family history of cancer say, “Well, I guess I’m doomed.”  

The poem’s descriptions of life and death seem to confirm that many of us will meet an unhappy end, even if we don’t know it yet:  

How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,  
Who shall die in old age, and who before their time, 
Who shall live and who shall die, 
Who shall perish by water and who by fire, 
Who by sword and who by wild beast, 
Who by famine and who by thirst, 
Who by earthquake and who by plague, 
Who by strangulation and who by stoning, 

The poem paints a picture of various characters in a book—they may not yet know what will happen to them, but their story is unfolding along a predetermined path.   

While our liturgy emphasizes that aspects of our lives are out of our control, that’s not the only message. Unetaneh Tokef also tells us that we have the opportunity—and responsibility—to take ownership over our lives through our actions. After the laundry list of blessings and curses, the poem continues: 

But repentance, prayer, and righteousness annul the severe decree. 

According to this tradition, we do have an opportunity to alter the course of our lives. That’s true, too, when it comes to genetics. Our genetics may increase our chances of a specific disease, but DNA is not fate.   

In particular, there are various ways that you can reduce your genetic risks. Take the opportunity of these High Holy Days to protect your family’s health. Here are a few steps you can take: 

  • If you’re planning to start a family or you know someone who is, then seek out carrier screening. Screening before pregnancy gives couples the most options 

  • To address your risk of cancer: 

The Sarnoff Center wishes you a sweet New Year, and an easy fast.  

Our Sweet Tradition

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By Carol Guzman

This past summer was very busy at the Sarnoff Center!

Our associate board members spearheaded a program in July about gene-editing, “CRISPR: Is Gene-Editing Kosher?” A few weeks earlier, we were the presenting sponsor for JCC Chicago Generation J’s Shabbat on the Lake where we hosted a variety of learning programs for 700 young adults. And we started preparations on our upcoming events, Jean Therapy and “What’s Jewish about BRCA?”  But summertime is also when we get started on a very important fall project we first started in 2014.

With the High Holy Days comes the Sarnoff Center’s annual Rosh Hashanah gift bag initiative! The Sarnoff Center provides participating synagogues and Jewish communities with small gift bags to distribute to congregants for the Jewish new year. Each bag contains a caramel-apple lollipop, a honey stick and an insert that explains our programs and upcoming events.

This past week our staff distributed nearly 11,000 bags to 35 congregations and Jewish groups around Chicagoland. That’s more communities than we’ve ever reached before!

For the second year in a row, we partnered with our friends in Keshet’s GADOL program to assemble gift bags. GADOL offers vocational opportunities for young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and we were beyond thrilled when they agreed to help turn bag assembly into a project for GADOL team members again this year. We truly appreciate our partnership and hope it continues for years to come.

We hope everyone receiving the bags this Rosh Hashanah enjoys the sweet treats and learns a little bit more about the programs and services we have to offer.

L’shana tovah from the Sarnoff Center staff!


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 .