Advances in Tracing Roots via DNA - And its Use for Identification and Recognition of Jewishness

Updated: Aug 25, 2020

Simanim Institute is leading a revolution in the identification of Jewishness, by drawing on advanced research and developing a model that assists people seeking to prove their Jewish roots

by the Simanim Institute

Simanim Institute
Simanim Institute

Last week we addressed a phenomenon that has become increasingly widespread in the Jewish People in recent years. More and more individuals are seeking the recognition of their Jewish roots, and the Jewish establishment does not recognize them as Jews because they lack the necessary documentation.

This week we will introduce the revolutionary solution that has been developed for these individuals.

There is a growing trend around the world for exploring ancestral roots via our DNA, and several large companies have been founded for this purpose. Their objective is mainly to satisfy the curiosity of people interested in checking and identifying their roots and/or perhaps finding genetic relatives. For the descendants of Jews who have no readily accessible proofs of Jewish ancestry, however, DNA testing can be an efficient and interesting solution.

These companies, however, usually check ancestral roots via the overall genome resulting from all of an individual’s forefathers and foremothers. Such DNA testing can hardly be used as evidence of Jewish roots because Jewishness is determined only by the maternal line. The good news is that part of our DNA – mitochondria (mtDNA) – comes only from our mothers, and can sometimes be used to identify whether a person is descended from a Jewish mother from a previous generation.

Simanim Institute, founded in Jerusalem as a non-profit association, recognized the potential in this solution and developed a unique DNA testing model that combines genetic and statistical data with Jewish halachic rules, such that the test results can be used by persons wishing to prove their Jewishness in accordance with the halachic rules followed by all the Jewish establishment institutions.

Olga, for example, was born in Ukraine and immigrated to Israel with her mother in the late 1990s. She was raised in Israel from a very young age, and when she wanted to register for marriage, she realized that she had to go to the rabbinical authorities for the confirmation of her Jewishness. Olga had no apprehensions whatsoever because she had always known that her maternal grandmother was Jewish, and had no doubts about her Jewishness being approved. Even so, after an examination of her papers, she was told there was a problem.

There was no documentation indicating that Olga’s grandmother was Jewish. This missing documentation caused Olga a great deal of distress, as the date of her wedding was approaching and the groom’s family would not agree to anything but a traditional Jewish wedding ceremony. Desperate for a solution, Olga contacted Simanim Institute, and a few days after the DNA test was sent for analysis she was informed that her DNA indeed indicated that her grandmother was Jewish. The rabbinate accepted the test results and approved Olga’s Jewishness, to the delight of the anxious bride and the groom’s family!

Simanim Institute Director Rabbi Pinchas Gotthold explains: “In the Ashkenazi population, for example, over 50% can be identified by their mitochondrial DNA. This means that over 50% of the descendants of Ashkenazi Jews have impressive physical evidence of their Jewishness.”

Do the rabbinical authorities accept this type of evidence?

“In general, the answer is yes. We have already successfully helped many people to obtain recognition of their Jewishness, both by the Israeli rabbinical authorities and in Jewish communities around the world, but there is still much work to be done. Not everyone is familiar with or understands the genetic, statistical and halachic significance of mitochondrial

DNA testing and Simanim Institute is preparing explanatory materials on this subject for all the decision-makers in the various Jewish institutions.”

How is the test done?

“It’s quite simple. Someone who wants to be tested contacts Simanim Institute, and we do the DNA test and examine the results to see if they are sufficient to prove the person’s Jewishness or not. We do all the statistical calculations and examine the halachic circumstances, and if the results are positive, we contact the relevant rabbinical authorities and ask them to recognize the person as Jewish. Of course, there are also many people who contact us not in order to obtain official recognition by the Jewish institutions, but rather out of curiosity regarding their Jewish ancestry, because they know that Simanim can provide them with precise and professional information.”

There is no doubt that this is a refreshing innovation – the harnessing of advanced research to help many people in their quest for recognition by the Jewish authorities. Without this revolutionary research, many Jews who lack archival documentation of their ancestry would not be able to obtain the halachic recognition they deserve.

For more information contact the Simanim Institute.