Thursday, 4 January 2007

Happy new year (and an article about a man who says he's Jewish by DNA)

Good wishes to one and all for 2007.
I have had an article published in the Jewish Chronicle about a man called John Haedrich, who, although he was brought up a Christian, says he is Jewish by DNA.
I am reproducing the text below, but will leave you all to make your own judgements. It's all quite fascinating.

John Haedrich just wants to be accepted for what he says he is – a Jew. But it’s not that simple. For Haedrich claims to be Jewish through his DNA, and his determination to be acknowledged as such is proving more than a little contentious.
“All I want is to be recognised as a Jew,” says Haedrich, who says he will file a claim to recognise his religious status at the High Court of Jerusalem. “I don’t want any money or benefits, but I want legal acceptance. I consider myself Jewish.”
DNA testing has become big business in the States and Haedrich, a 44-year-old nursing home director from California, is one of millions who have sent off swabs to find out who they are, and where they came from. Most, however, do not then decide to change their religion.
“I know that the question ‘who is a Jew?’ is extremely controversial,” he says. “I was brought up Christian, but now I feel Jewish and that is not going to change. I have a willingness to be Jewish, to learn Hebrew, learn the customs and go to Temple.”
There are, however, some serious obstacles ahead. Haedrich faces both scientific problems (it’s questionable whether you can actually determine religion through DNA tests) and halachic ones too.
“Jewish laws are very specific - the only way you can identify someone as Jewish is if their mother is Jewish,” says Rabbi Moshe Elefant, from the Orthodox Union in New York. “That has to be verified from generation to generation.
“This DNA testing is an unacceptable process and in my opinion, it’s also an unnecessary process. If he wants to be part of the Jewish people and act as a Jew, let him convert.”
John Haedrich’s Jewish journey began when he took a trip to Eastern Europe six years ago. His parents and grandparents were German immigrants, and he wanted to visit Germany and from there drive east.
“I couldn’t put my finger on why it was,” he says, “but I was so interested in Jewish things. I visited synagogues in the Czech Republic, stayed in the Jewish quarter in Krakow and was overcome when I went to Auschwitz.”
That trip got Haedrich thinking, but it wasn’t until 2004 that he took the DNA test which, he says, revealed his origins to be Ashkenazi Jewish.
Haedrich has now had numerous DNA tests, both on his Y DNA (which comes down the generations on the father’s side) and his Mitochondrial DNA, (which comes from his mother). He argues that the results show him to be Jewish on both sides (albeit going back centuries), and he is currently trying to track down old German synagogue records to boost his claims.
Haedrich is clearly a man obsessed with his discoveries, even though the science is debatable.
“We’re just not yet able to prove to someone that they’re Jewish, although we might be tip toeing in that direction,” says Megan Smolenyak, a genealogist and co-author of Trace Your Roots with DNA. She explains that if someone was Jewish, certain genetic markers would probably appear, but that this is not foolproof. “It sounds a bit like wishful thinking on his part.”
For Haedrich, it’s not wishful thinking, but clear reality.
“The Israeli authorities would not accept my evidence, and I think that’s ridiculous” he says indignantly. “In the law courts, they accept DNA for medical, legal and forensic reasons. They can’t allow DNA evidence for some things, but not allow it for me.
“I’m now trying to persuade the State of Israel to accept DNA evidence to support an Aliyah application. It’s not just for me, it’s for others as well. This could potentially open the doors to a whole category of people who are otherwise not recognised.
“Imagine if a legal precendent was set. This could help the tens of thousand from Tsarist Russia, who had to conceal their Jewishness during WW2. It would help people who lack paperwork to demonstrate that they are Jews. They are entitled to recognition and so am I. My purpose is to do good, not to alienate or inflame anybody. My intentions are positive.”
Haedrich says that he does not want to “disrespect” the rabbinate and that he has enlisted “experts” to help his cause.
“Some may brand me as a nuisance or crazy person,” he says. “But I’ll settle for being called a trailblazer.”
In his quest to blaze that trail, he has travelled to Israel - where he took out a full page advertisement in the Jerusalem Post - and even set up a new ‘Jewish by DNA’ research institute in LA. It’s already cost him tens of thousands of pounds (he won’t say how much) and he’s not even brought his case to court yet.
Rabbi Dr Michael Shire, acting principal of Leo Baeck College, says he’s not surprised by Haedrich’s pursuit of what he sees as his rightful heritage.
“It’s not unusual for people who find out that they’re Jewish to become completely passionate and obsessed by it,” he say. “It’s something I’ve experienced many times, and often people have had an inkling of it.”
Rabbi Shire has some sympathy for Haedrich’s cause, but not totally.
“On the one hand, as a modern liberal person, I reject a genetic form of Judaism,” he says. “I don’t have a sense that one’s Jewish identity is determined genetically. Anyone can become Jewish – they can choose to become Jewish.”
But he adds that under reform Judaism, Haedrich would be expected to convert, and that’s not something the Californian is prepared to do.
“If I am a Jew, why should I convert?” he asks. “I’d rather fight this for years than convert for the principle of it.”
Haedrich is clearly in this for the long haul. He celebrated his first Passover this year, and also his first Yom Kippur (he didn’t fast, but says he “may” next year.). His next goal is to prepare for an adult bar mitzvah.
“It’s nice to be Jewish by DNA but it’s more important that you should be Jewish by choice,” he says. “I’m Jewish by choice and willing to learn and embrace it. I’ve got no time frame. How long has the Jewish religion been around?
“I’ve had frustrations and disappointments over this, and I’m willing to do everything but convert. If someone can conclusively prove that I’m not Jewish, then I’ll convert.”

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