CJG Blog

Center for Jewish Genetics blog

Engaged? Jewish Traditions Before a Wedding

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By Carol Guzman

Believe it or not, Valentine’s Day is one of the most popular days to get engaged. Perhaps, like me, you’ve noticed a lot more engagement notifications or engagement photoshoots show up on your Facebook feed. According to Brides, there is an uptick of engagements that take place during December through March. As many of my friends prepare to take the next step in their relationship (MAZEL TOV!) below are some Jewish customs that couples may partake in during their engagement.

  • Have a family member or close friend throw you a L’ Chaim: Similar to an engagement party, a l’chaim is a celebration where an engaged couple’s family and friends gather together to congratulate the couple as they begin to plan for their big day.
  • Tena’im: Literally meaning the ‘conditions,’ the tena’im is a document that signifies two families approving a match between their children. The document can include instructions for finances, the time and date of the wedding, and the penalties each family will face if either person decides to back out. It is also customary for attendees to smash a plate to commemorate the families’ approval of the union. The tena’im is a tradition that has evolved over time and has modern reinterpretations. 
  • Aufruf: On a Shabbat service before the wedding ceremony, the couple is called up to the bimah, a synagogue’s elevated platform, and is given the honor of an aliyah, the recitation of the blessing before and after the Torah reading. Once the couple has finished reciting the blessing, it is customary for congregants to pelt throw fruit gummies at the couple to wish them a sweet and happy marriage. 
  • Find a Wedding Officiant: A wedding officiant is a wonderful resource that can help the couple incorporate Jewish traditions to make the wedding a meaningful Jewish event. Whether you opt to have Jewish clergy, or a close friend officiate the wedding, the earlier you communicate what ceremonial traditions are important to you the better. Clergy members may also provide pre-marriage counseling which can help the couple visualize and prepare for their future together.

  • Genetic Screening: During your pre-marital counseling sessions, your wedding officiant may recommend getting carrier screening during your engagement. At least one in four individuals of Ashkenazi Jewish descent is a carrier for at least one “Jewish” genetic condition. However, it is important to note that while individuals with Jewish ancestry are more likely to carry some of these conditions, anyone, regardless of ethnicity, can be a carrier of any condition. Therefore, it is important for Jewish and interfaith couples to know their carrier status when planning for a family.

The Sarnoff Center wishes you mazel tov on your engagement! Whether or not you choose to incorporate some of these customs during your engagement, remember to focus on what is most important – your relationship to each other.

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.

Meet Kate, the Sarnoff Center's Adminstrative Aide

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I am thrilled to join the Norton & Elaine Sarnoff Center for Jewish Genetics as an administrative aide. I grew up in the small town of Mercersburg, PA until I moved to Richmond, VA to attend the University of Richmond. I majored in art history with a focus in museum studies. I worked at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in advancement and development, and then moved to Chicago this past fall. I’m excited to use my experience to help serve Chicago’s Jewish community. In addition to my work with the Sarnoff Center, I will work with JUF’s Community Outreach and Engagement team. I’ve enjoyed all the great art, food, and coffee Chicago has to offer, and look forward to my first summer in the city.

The 2019 URJ Biennial in Numbers:

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By Carol Guzman

This December, the Norton & Elaine Sarnoff Center for Jewish Genetics had the opportunity to share our mission and work at the Union for Reform Judaism Biennial conference. More than 5,000 clergy members, leaders, and exhibitors from across the country came together to learn, network, worship and make decisions about the policies of the Reform movement. The URJ Biennial took place in Chicago and the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago served as a Gold Sponsor for this year’s conference.

The Sarnoff Center exhibited at the Kikar area right outside of the exhibition hall with 150 other organizations. Sarnoff Center staff switched shifts throughout the conference, connecting with many attendees from all around the world.  By the end of the weekend 26 organizations in 14 different states requested additional Sarnoff Center educational materials that they plan to share with their respective communities.

Educating the Jewish community about Jewish genetic health is our main mission, so we couldn’t help but bring along some of our print materials and awesome swag. Throughout the conference we distributed:

  • 193 lunch bags
  • 50 water bottles
  • 150 Hereditary Cancer Brochures
  • 125 Interfaith Brochures
  • 127 Jewish Genetic Disorder Brochures
  • 196 lip balms
  • 67 fun sized chocolate bars

Our staff connected with various organizations that seek to provide services to the people in the Jewish community and we had the pleasure of reconnecting with partner organizations who also focus on genetic health, such as the Victor Center. We are excited to see what our new connections from the URJ will bring as we continue to strive to advocate for genetic health in the Jewish community!

Almost Family and Genetic Testing

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By: Carol Guzman

Warning: Light spoilers for "Almost Family" ahead.

More than 26 million people have taken consumer DNA tests worldwide, making it easier than ever to uncover familial information. Finding a cousin or an uncle twice removed might be fun, but what if your results show you that your biological parent is not the person you expected? A new show highlights this rare but disturbing reality that genetic testing can bring to light. 

In the Fox TV series “Almost Family,” Julia Bechley’s world is turned upside-down after her father, Leon, a renowned fertility specialist, is publicly accused of using his own sperm to impregnate patients at his clinic. Julia offers free DNA paternity testing to anyone that suspects Leon to be their father and finds out she has a least 100 half siblings. Julia begins to rekindle a bond with two half-sisters: Edie, a criminal-defense attorney representing Leon, and Roxy, a retired Olympic gymnast. Some other half siblings include Julia’s former romantic partner, an Orthodox Jewish woman, and a gay man who is starting to consider beginning his own family.  

Rather than focusing on Leon Bechley’ hideous actions, the show focuses on the intersection of genetics and family. Does sharing genetic material with someone else automatically garner a deeper familial relationship? While other half siblings are weaved within the series, each identified by nervously tapping their teeth, a tick Julia, Edie and Roxy all share, they all reach out to Julia asking for various information. One sibling asks for Leon’s family health history, another pleads for stories of his past, but rarely does anyone demands answers or showcases anger. While Almost Family may not treat this subject matter with finesse, Julia does understand that her half siblings “…had their lives disrupted, changed by the miracle of DNA testing.” 

While “Almost Family” isn’t based on a true story, it does raise some hard questions that we will only continue to struggle with as genetic testing and technologies advance and become more accessible. As more and more American’s take direct to consumer test to find long lost family members, they are unknowingly making it easier for law enforcement and government agencies to use their genetic material against them and their relatives.   

In addition to discovering new family members, direct to consumer test’s health-related insights could reveal an increased risk for diseases and certain cancers. Take 23andMe, their Health Risk Test claims to screening for a gene that increases risk for Alzheimer’s disease, which is not preventable and currently has no known treatment. Should you be screened for a disease with no preventable or treatable action and fear a disease that might not emerge?  Should you tell your other family members, even those found through direct to consumer tests, about this newfound information?  

The age of genetic information has come, and it might bring about just a little more information than we are ready to handle.   


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 .