Maimonides Brunch to Tackle Jewish Genetics

By Michelle Cohen
HAKOL Editor
Editor’s note: Karen Arnovitz Grinzaid, MS, LCGC, CCRC, senior director of JScreen and instructor at the Emory University School of Medicine, will speak at the Maimonides Society Bagel Brunch on Sunday, Oct. 16, at 10:15 a.m. at the JCC.
​Q: Please tell us a little bit about what you plan to cover in your talk.
A: I’m going to be talking about genetic issues in the Jewish community and the importance of people learning about their genetics, and that’s going to include talking about carrier screening for people who are planning to have children in the future or to expand their families. In that regard, I’m going to be talking about a program I’m the director of based at Emory University in Atlanta called the JScreen program. It’s an online, at-home, Jewish genetic disease screening program that lets people register for genetic screening online, order a testing kit to their home, send that in for testing for over 100 diseases and then get their results by phone from our genetic counselors. The program is trying to make genetic screening really convenient and affordable. I’m also going to talk about genetic diseases that impact the Jewish community like breast and ovarian cancer and some other conditions that can affect people where they have symptoms but may not realize they have a genetic condition. It’s really an overview about Jewish genetics and the importance of knowing about testing.
Q: Why is Jewish genetic testing important?
A: The testing is very important because people in the Jewish community, or even interfaith couples, can be carriers for genetic diseases and they’re healthy, they don’t know they’re carrying these genes, but if they have children with someone who carries these genes, they can be at risk. The only way to know if your children are at risk is to get this testing done.
Q: How can an individual or a couple get tested?
A: People go online to our website, which is They watch an educational video, and then they register for a screening kit. That kit comes to them in the mail. They provide a saliva sample that they mail back in, and then the genetic counselors with the JScreen program contact the person and talk to them about their results over the phone or a secure video conference.
Q: What specific genes are the test looking for, and what can they do?
A:​ On the JScreen test, we’re testing for over 100 genetic diseases. That includes diseases like Tay-Sachs, Camavan disease, cystic fibrosis, fragile X … In those 100 diseases, about 40 of those are common in Ashkenazic, Sephardic, and Mizrachi Jewish populations, and the rest of the diseases are common in the general population. The test is applicable to anyone. We are talking to the Jewish population about testing, but this test is applicable to anyone, including interfaith couples or non-Jews.
Q: How did genetic testing in the Jewish community come about, and how has it evolved over time?
A:​ The first big widespread genetic screening program was for Tay-Sachs in the early 1970s. That started when a test became available to let people know whether or not they’re a carrier. After the 1970s, Tay-Sachs testing continued, but our ability to test for genetic diseases has improved so much since the early 1970s that we’re now able to test for many diseases at the same time. Also, there are many more disease genes that have been identified in the Jewish population, so screening now is much more comprehensive than it used to be and we’re able to give people a lot more information if they’re planning to have families.
Q: Any concluding remarks?
A​: A lot of people feel very reassured if they don’t know of any genetic diseases in their families, that they’re not at risk. Talking about this is very important because these things can stay unnoticed in a family and it’s possible that two carriers get together and have an affected child. Knowing this information and getting tested is very important in the Jewish community.
The program is free for Maimonides members and spouses, $10 for community members. RSVP to


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