CJG Blog

Center for Jewish Genetics blog

Introducing Haley, Our 2020 Lewis Summer Intern

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I am extremely excited to be the Lewis Summer Intern at the Norton and Elaine Sarnoff Center for Jewish Genetics! I am a rising senior at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign studying integrative biology with a minor in chemistry. I plan to apply to genetic counseling graduate programs this upcoming fall to pursue a career as a genetic counselor. On campus, I serve as the President of the professional biology fraternity Beta Psi Omega, I belong to the sorority Alpha Omicron Pi, and I intern for the University of Illinois Counseling Center. 

I grew up in Highland Park and graduated from Highland Park High School. I am back home this summer working with the Sarnoff Center staff virtually. The Sarnoff Center provides many services for the community that I am eager to learn more about. I look forward to exploring the public health sector as well as the health risks affecting the Jewish community.

UIUC Hillel's Q&A with our Genetic Counselor

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The Sarnoff Center for Jewish Genetics’ Intern at UIUC Hillel, Valeria Buzinova, interviewed our genetic counselor Melissa Ramos on Zoom about her work. The recorded discussion offers a quick overview of Jewish genetic disorders and an in-depth question and answer session about genetic counseling. Watch the video of the May 2020 conversation:

Q&A With a Genetic Counselor from  Norton & Elaine Sarnoff Center for Jewish Genetics on  YouTube.

Have questions or want more information? Contact the Sarnoff Center at (312) 357-4718 or  JewishGenetics@juf.org. Have questions for our genetic counselor? Contact Melissa Ramos at  MelissaRamos@juf.org.

A Different Kind of Sermon

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by Becca Bakal & Carol Guzman

Rabbis wear many hats, from teaching to pastoral care to leading worship services. You may be surprised to learn that rabbis are also responsible for health education: The two largest American Jewish movements—Reform and Conservative—both encourage rabbis to share information about Jewish genetics with their congregants.

A new study in the Journal of Genetic Counseling investigated how this works in practice. Researchers surveyed Reform and Conservative rabbis across the U.S. to learn how education about Jewish genetics takes space in synagogues, and what rabbis know about these topics.

The study found that rabbis commonly discuss Jewish genetic disorders in premarital counseling sessions, but that community-wide education is not widespread. While over 90% of rabbis in the study had raised the topic in premarital counseling, only 28% said that their synagogues provided community programming about Jewish genetic disorders. 46% of respondents were interested in offering education sessions about Jewish genetics to congregants, so there is a 20 point gap between rabbis who are able to offer community-wide education about Jewish genetics and those who wish to do so.

The study also indicated that rabbis who are newer in the profession —those who have fewer than 20 years of experience —are more knowledgeable about Jewish genetics than those with 20 or more years’ experience. The study also found that rabbis who had attended an educational program on Jewish genetics had more knowledge of the topic. Because genetic screening technologies have changed immensely over the past 20 years, rabbis who were trained earlier may not have up-to-date information unless they seek it out.

These findings indicate that the Sarnoff Center’s educational supports can meet synagogue needs, increasing knowledge of Jewish genetic disorders, hereditary cancers and the importance of carrier screening and genetic counseling among clergy and congregants.

At the Sarnoff Center, we often hear from rabbis that they know it is important to educate their congregants about Jewish genetics, but that it is hard to make this education a priority when they lack time and up-to-date information on screening resources.  

The Sarnoff Center is available to offer virtual (and when possible, in-person) community education for synagogues, as well as education for clergy to brush up on their knowledge of Jewish genetics. We aim to support clergy, synagogue staff and lay leadership in sharing this information by providing high-quality programming and educational resources.

Are you interested in having virtual Sarnoff Center programming for your community? We offer free programs and educational supports tailored to various audiences. For more information, contact Becca Bakal, our Program Manager of Health Education, at RebeccaBakal@juf.org.

5 Ways to Celebrate National DNA Day 2020

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Here at the Sarnoff Center, we are big fans of genetics. What better way to honor life’s building blocks than to celebrate National DNA Day on April 25? 

On that day in 1953, the scientific journal Nature highlighted the discovery of DNA’s structure by James Watson and Francis Crick (and, ahem, Rosalind Franklin). Fifty years later, in April 2003, scientists completed the Human Genome Project. 

National DNA Day offers students, teachers and the public an opportunity to learn about the latest advances in genetics and explore how those advances impact humanity. While the COVID-19 pandemic keeps us from celebrating together, here are some activities we can do from home:  

  • Watch Ken Burns’ documentary The Gene: An Intimate History: While I don’t recommend binging PBS’ four-hour, two-part program in one go, the film was an absolute treat. Based on Siddhartha Mukherjee’s book by the same name, the film brought me back to high school biology class, detailing advances from philosophers like Aristotle to modern genome-mapping scientists. The film introduces viewers to patients and doctors on the cusp of genetic discoveries that could change the lives of many. It’s 10 out of 10, highly recommended. 

  • Document your family health history: Family health histories can provide clues about genetic factors that are passed down from parents to children, and they can map the likelihood of developing certain hereditary diseases. Even if you are hunkering down at home alone, you can reach out to family members via Zoom or FaceTime to ask some personal questions. (Trust us, your bubbe already wants you to call more often.) Recording your health history is something you can do today to prepare for the future. And when you provide the records to your health-care providers, they can better identify potential health risks. 

  • Create DNA origami: If you are trying to reduce your screen time, the National Human Genome Research Institute offers a kit to create your very own origami DNA at home! As you may already know, DNA’s structure of right-handed double helix is unique. All you need to do is download and print the foldable paper pattern and follow the folding instructions. They have also included a video guide if you need help along the way.  

  • Talk to your physician about carrier screening: If you’re planning for a family, then you may want to make a telehealth appointment with your healthcare provider to talk about carrier screening. Persons of certain ethnic groups, including people of Jewish ancestry, are at higher risk for having a child with a genetic disorder. If both partners are carriers – meaning they each have one working copy of a gene and one changed copy of the same gene – each of their biological children has a 25% chance of being affected with the linked disorder. 

  • Join a Sarnoff Center webinar: While we are not able to offer the Chicago community in-person events right now, we are still providing online educational opportunities via Zoom. Our health education program manager is facilitating webinars on Jewish genetic disorders, hereditary cancers, and genetic counseling and testing. Follow our Facebook page to learn more about upcoming online programs. 

To learn more about the Sarnoff Center’s affordable, accessible carrier screening program or to speak with a genetic counselor, visit Jewishgenetics.org/cjg/get-screened or contact us at GeneticScreening@juf.org. 


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 .