By Shira Gerstein, Sarnoff Center Associate Board Member
While my classmates were gathered in the assembly room to get their blood drawn for Jewish carrier testing my senior year of high school, I hung out in the hallway. It’s not that I’m squeamish at the sight of blood. Rather, I superciliously (and falsely, I now know) thought that carrier screening was not for me. After all, I’m only half Jewish.
During my senior year of college, I learned from the Center for Jewish Genetics that I could have a 50% chance of being a carrier for a Jewish genetic disease if my father was a carrier and that one in four Ashkenazi Jews were carriers. Since I knew I wanted to marry someone Jewish, I decided to get screened as a precaution. However, as I had smugly anticipated, my test results came back negative. After all, I’m only half Jewish.
While shadowing genetic counselors after college, I saw numerous occasions where genetic counselors took significance with patients’ distant Jewish ancestry. I wondered why it mattered if a patient is only one-sixteenth Jewish. I’m not a carrier and after all, I’m only half Jewish.
Then one of my siblings did an extensive carrier screening test. As I had arrogantly anticipated, she was not a carrier for a Jewish genetic disease. But to my surprise, she was found to be a carrier of a genetic disease that is found predominantly among the Amish. After researching our family history, we discovered that our grandmother’s grandfather was Amish! Perhaps, carrier screening is for me. After all, I’m one-sixteenth Amish and half Jewish.
The moral of the story? Even having just one Jewish grandparent or great-grandparent is enough to increase a person’s risk of carrying a Jewish genetic disorder. Furthermore, while Jewish genetic disorders appear more often in individuals of Jewish descent, anyone can be a carrier of these conditions. This also means that someone with predominantly Jewish ancestry can still be a carrier of "non-Jewish" disorders.
The Norton & Elaine Sarnoff Center offers an affordable, accessible carrier screening program for Jewish and interfaith couples. The online, on-demand model doesn’t even require a blood draw! For more information, visit jewishgenetics.org.