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I Just Discovered I’m Jewish!

I Just Discovered I’m Jewish!

What do I do now?

 Email

Dear Rabbi,

Sometimes life hits you in the face with a cold, wet towel. Last week, I visited my mother in the hospital, and she told me that she’s Jewish. I asked why she had never told me before, but she didn’t want to say. But she told me about her parents who were Holocaust survivors. It was pretty clear she wasn’t making this up.

I talked with a Jewish friend about it, and he said that if my mother is Jewish, that makes me Jewish too.

The truth is, most of my friends are Jewish. And I always took an interest in all things Jewish. But being Jewish? If I’m Jewish too, I better find out what that means. Where do I start?

—New Jew That Never Knew

Dear Jew,

Funny thing, nobody is ever shocked by the discovery that their mother is Korean. Funny thing, nobody is ever shocked by the discovery that their mother is Inuit.Or Slovakian. Or even Inuit—although that would be pretty interesting.

On the other hand, suddenly discovering that you’re Muslim, Bahai or Buddhist is not even a possibility. Those are religions, and if you don’t believe, in what way are you a member? But it happens quite often that someone wakes up one day to discover, hey, I’m Jewish.

So there’s something unique in that. And I suppose that’s really what you’re asking: What’s unique about being a Jew that you can discover you are Jewish, not out of belief or affiliation, choice or inclination, upbringing or community? It's so strange: You can discover you are Jewish just because your mother one day says, “Guess what? I’m Jewish, so you are too.” (Of course, you’ll need some credible evidence that this is for real.)

The answer is that we Jews are one big family, all brothers and sisters, all children of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel and Leah. If your mother is Jewish, you’re part of that family. (If it’s your dad, but not your mother, or if it’s your mother’s father, but not her mother, see To the Child of a Jewish Father.)

And you’ll say, “Yes, but all of humanity is one big family.” So I’ll answer that Jews are a family held together with super glue. Divine super glue that lasts forever. We are eternally bonded by an eternal covenant and a common mission that our ancestors accepted at Mount Sinai.

The covenant Jews are a family held together with divine, everlasting super glue. is with the Creator of Heaven and Earth, who liberated us from the oppression of our taskmasters to fulfill His will with love and joy so that we will inherit the Land of Israel in peace. The mission is to be a light to all the nations of the world, so that they too will learn to fulfill their role in filling this entire world with freedom, peace and harmony, as its Creator designed it to be. That covenant and that mission melds us together as a single being, many bodies with one soul.

Both the covenant and the mission are embodied in the Five Books of Moses and the rest of the Hebrew Bible, along with an enormous body of commentary and discussion composed over many millennia—all of which we call Torah, which means “the teaching.” The Torah teaches us how to live in a divine way here on earth, in every time and in every situation. A deed prescribed by the Torah is called a mitzvah. The practical instructions are called halachah—which means “the way.” And all this works together to hold our global family together over space and time.

Almost 4,000 years have passed since Abraham, the first Jew, began to teach the world that G‑d cares for His world and its creatures. Over 3,300 years have passed since Abraham’s children entered into a covenant at Mount Sinai.

Since then, the Jewish people have made an immeasurable impact on the way people think about themselves and about our world, igniting the human spark with ideas that were once radical and revolutionary but now are almost universally embraced. For example:

  • the notion of liberty (think Exodus),
  • a vision of world peace (think of the U.N. wall with the quotation from Isaiah, “. . . and they will beat their swords into plowshares”),
  • the sanctity of all human life without discrimination,
  • the right of the common man to his own property,
  • the need to educate every child,
  • equal rights for all before the law,
  • the supremacy of the law over the monarchy,
  • government-mandated social welfare,
  • tolerance of the foreigner who does not share your religion,
  • . . . and the concept of progress over time—one that leads to a world filled with an awareness of the divine “as water fills the ocean bed”—may that time arrive much sooner than we can imagine.

We brought these ideas to the world not by the sword and not by threat of force, but by example and by perseverance through the greatest hardships, so that they seeped through many streams and wellsprings into the beliefs of other peoples, until those peoples came to adopt them as their own.

Let me put it this way: Other peoples are defined by their geography. We, the Jewish people, are defined by the Torah and its story of us—the story of our forefathers, of our exodus from Egypt, of our entry into the covenant, our sojourn in the wilderness, our settling of the land of Canaan, our exiles and travails and dispersion throughout the world; of never-ending study of our Torah and of our own story, until we and the Torah that defines us have become one, just as we and our story are one. As an Italian is Italian because he was born in Italy, so a Jew is a Jew because he or she was born into a story.As an Italian is Italian because he was born in Italy, so a Jew is a Jew because he or she was born into a story (or entered into it by adoption into the family, through a rite of conversion).

We reclaim that terrain as we traverse its gamut in the Torah we study and in the prayers we utter daily, and within those vast borders we discover who we are: a tree of life that cannot be consumed by the most furious fires of history, a light in the darkness that cannot be extinguished by the most incessant and formidable waves of change, because we are tied in an inexorable bond to our divine mission.

So that is us, and you are one of us, and wherever you go, anywhere in the world, you will be one of our family. You can walk into any synagogue or Jewish community center and say, “Hello, I just discovered I’m Jewish,” and you will be embraced as a long-lost sibling.

Which is what I suggest you do right now. You can use our locator to find the closest Chabad center to wherever it is in the world you live. If there is none nearby, just search around for the closest traditional Jewish community. Join and celebrate our festivals with us, rest and enjoy a Shabbat meal with us—because our celebrations are your celebration, and our Shabbat is your Shabbat.

When you’re adopting Jewish practices, you’ll need to do that step by step. It’s not an all-or-nothing proposition. A good place to start is with any of the ten mitzvahs of the mitzvah campaign initiated by the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of blessed memory.

And learn. You may not find yourself agreeing with everything you learn, but that shouldn’t stop you from studying and questioning and studying more. Because it is that study and dialogue over our Torah that, more than anything else, has bonded us together in our common destiny over these many millennia. And it is there, within that Torah that G‑d has given us, that we discover ourselves as one eternal being.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at Chabad.org, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with Chabad.org's copyright policy.
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Anonymous Fort Worth January 12, 2018

Partially agreed. European Jews, or Jews in general, kept to themselves for the most part due to persecutions and religious differences; they didnt intermarry the same way we see in the USA or some other places today. There are some Europeans who will be Jewish without realizing it, but not all, or even most. However anyone with Jewish DNA markers (called mtDNA or mitochondrial DNA) on their maternal side is Jewish, even if it's many generations back, and that person can reclaim their Jewishness if they can prove it through a DNA test or genealogy reaearch. If you have even a fairly small amount of Ashkenazi or known Jewish mtDNA, it proves that you are descebded from a Jewess. Reply

Michael US January 7, 2018

Interestingly but not surprisingly, the geographical origins referenced in the previous post "Spain, Portugal, Syria, Lebanon, Armenia, Libya, and Morocco" are also identified as geographical ancestral hot spots that we see again and again in DNA testers who are 'positive' for Sephardic markers.

Btw, almost no one -- no matter how Jewish, or not Jewish -- their documented lineage may be, is going to test as 100% anything.

Everyone with any European ancestry has many Jewish ancestors along both maternal and paternal lines within the last 1000 years, and most of us will be descended from the same set of ancestors multiple times within the last millennium.

So genetically speaking, the question of 'am I descended from Jewish ancestors' is most likely "Yes".

In fact, the chances that anyone of (with any amount of) European ancestry is not a descendant of a Jewish ancestors who lived within the last 1000 years ago is practically nil. Reply

Anonymous NYC December 26, 2017

Jewish DNA Okay, since the discovery of European Jewish DNA from Russia, Poland, and Belarus...I've been able to identify countries leading up the Sephardic connection. Spain, Portugal, Syria, Lebanon, Armenia, Libya, and Morocco. These were lineage traced back thru transatlantic slave trade and Sephardic families involved. Reply

Anonymous December 25, 2017

Actually just this year (in October?) the rabbinate in Israel allowed "mtDNA" testing (that's the only one that can be used as it traces straight up the mother's line) for a number of Jews to prove they were Jewish.

Aside from some people's personal personal prejudices, it IS a reliable indication and is recently gaining ground among religious authorities. It used to be that DNA testing wasnt reliable because they couldnt test the mother's line alone, and couldnt pinpoint certain things. But technology is gaining rapidly and people are slowly starting to recognise it.

The only problem is that mtDNA isnt able to detect all Jewish genes. Only about half of Ashkenazis carry the genes that can be verified as Jewish, and I believe it's a much smaller amount of DNA that they know to be Sephardic. So over half of people who are Jewish cant prive it through a DNA test because their genes look like everyone else's... At least so far. But the genes that CAN be tested are 100% Jewish in origin Reply

janet menegakis Shrewsbury December 21, 2017

Sounds so familiar. I didn't find out about my Jewish roots until I had Cancer and had to fill out a questionaire asking about Asheinazi familial connections. My Mother then told me there were Jewish connections in my Father's family. None of my cousins knew about this and now all our parents are dead. We did trace back to Solomon Mendel marrying Sophie Ahrens...my 4th generation great-grandparents. Reply

Rabbi Aryeh Moshen Brooklyn, NY December 21, 2017

I am not commenting about Michael's or any other specific DNA tests to determine Jewish ancestry. I am not qualified to judge which of the multitude of genes to test to look for specific Jewish markers. Aside from finding equal mtDNA in a known Jew by birth and one who thinks that s/he may be Jewish, a DNA test cannot be used to determine that one who is a candidate for conversion need not be converted, and even there it may not be deemed acceptable without some sort of family records.

However, if you want to learn if you have Jewish roots and wish to take these tests, by all means. If they help make up your mind when it comes to convert or not convert, then I will not tell you to refrain from taking them, merely to refrain from thinking that even a 90% Jewish score means that a Bet Din will accept you on that alone, Reply

Michael US December 16, 2017

Continuing: Mike, Major DNA Project Admin.

What I can tell you Rabbi is that we have many people in the project who are genetically Jewish, and prior to DNA testing had no idea or notion that they are directly descended from Jewish ancestors.

People come to the project in search of Jewish identity, and in search of answers, and I can only respond in terms of probable genetic identity.

So Rabbi, what do you do with ancient Jewish populations lost generations who have been separated by hundreds of years, and possibly millennia,and have just discovered through DNA testing that they are Jews?

Do you welcome them back to the tribe, or shun them as outsiders? Reply

Rabbi Aryeh Moshen Brooklyn November 5, 2017

The case was where the triplets had already been tested and their DNA was equal. There was no YDNA because they were female. There are DNA tests that look for certain genes that are unique to specific populations. The assumption is that virtually all of the carriers of those genes received them from their ancestors and was not an accidental mutation (such as Queen Victoria). We can discuss how scientific those tests are from now until doomsday but at least those are most likely at least 97% accurate.

This case was where samples were given to a "lab" used by many people. The "results" showed that the specific lab was not using the real scientific tests, but rather a cheaper version and their results are not accurate. Based on these results, I would not rely on any lab results unless I could find someone who could verify the methods used and their accuracy. I would not rely on a lab stating that they use the best methods possible. Reply

Michael US October 24, 2017

If the triplets were indeed identical, then quality test results from a reputable testing company would have demonstrated that.

All of the children will have had identical YDNA (paternal), and mtDNA (maternal) signatures with their parents.

The differences between siblings show up in autosomal DNA or atDNA.


If the atDNA signatures were not exactly the same, one can draw one of two conclusions - either the triplets are not genetically identical- so are actually fraternal. OR the testing company provided faulty reports. It's either one or the other.

I'm sorry to learn that the parents either didn't get the results they were expecting, or that these particular results were flubbed by the testing company in question.

The single case cited does not contradict or disprove millions of valid results used in every circumstance from ancestry testing to, genetic disease identification, to criminal prosecutions.

Whether or not it is accepted as evidence by clerics, the science is valid. Reply

Rabbi Aryeh Moshen Brooklyn October 22, 2017

Once again, they were identical. Ergo they should have had the same results. The incongruent results show the error of placing one's trust in a faulty test.

Fraternal twins are the same as siblings, but were born at the same time and may show up with different ancestries depending on which chromosomes each parent gave to the specific ovum and sperm cells. Reply

Barbara Niles Phoenix, Arizona November 6, 2017
in response to Rabbi Aryeh Moshen:

Rabbi - Are you saying that if one test was faulty, they are all faulty; therefore, DNA testing is useless? If that is so, how then do we prove true maternity or paternity? Reply

Sonia Los angeles October 20, 2017

Terrific! Reply

Michael US August 22, 2017

The value of the discussion depends upon whether the triplets were identical, or fraternal.

If identical triplets, I would question the Genetic Ancestry service providing the results rather than the results themselves. Like any other service, some are much better than others.

If the triplets were fraternal, the differences may be attributable to the fact that we all inherit different amounts and pieces of our autosomal DNA from each of our parents. Non-identical siblings - even fraternal twins, and triplets, etc. will naturally have different amounts of DNA from various ancestral sources, inherited through both parents. Otherwise, we'd probably all end up with three ears, 11 fingers, and thirteen toes!

So, yes! It's entirely possible that triplets would have very different results, and that all the results would be valid. Reply

Rabbi Aryeh Moshen Brooklyn, NY August 27, 2017
in response to Michael:

They were identical, which shows that these tests are less than accurate. The only result that I would believe is if the mtDNA of two people were exactly equal and one was known to be a Jew by birth via the maternal line for several generations. And here there is an issue as many of us cannot verify more than five generations. Reply

Rabbi Aryeh Moshen Brooklyn, NY August 22, 2017

I can't get a URL to pass through, but google "DAHM" "Triplets", "DNA"

Quoting from the Ninja article, "the DNA test claimed that Nicole, the oldest Dahm sister, was 18 percent Irish and British while Erica was only 16 percent Irish and British....While the oldest Dahm sister Nicole seemed to have an 11 percent German and French heritage, her sister’s numbers came up totally different. Jaclyn’s results showed she was 18 percent German and French, while Erica’s said she was 22.3 percent German and French....Erica and Jaclyn’s Scandinavian ancestry was exactly 7.4 percent. Surprisingly, Nicole’s results said that she was made up of 11.4 percent Scandinavian ancestry...Dr. Travis Stork, The Doctors’ host, chimed in about the results too. The physician told the Dahm triplets and the audience that these types of genetic tests should be used for “entertainment” instead of as the real evidence of DNA heritage. Reply

Michael US August 10, 2017

Rabbi Aryeh Moshen,

Would you kindly cite the article and source for your information?

While ancestry estimates can vary from service to service - in general they provide a pretty good insight into one's ethnic ancestry.

For Jewish ancestry, FTDNA (fee based), and DNA.land (free but you have to have an autosomal file to upload), are probably the best. Reply

Quarter-Jewish August 9, 2017

In general these tests cannot prove or disprove Jewishness in people of partial Jewish ancestry, especially if it is distant. They can tell you if you had an Ashkenazi Jewish ancestor somewhere back in your family tree.Which of course does not make one a Jew. In most cases you will not be able to determine if it is directly on your mother's line. Even the K1a1b1a mtda haplogroup is found in non-Jews so cannot be considered a conclusive proof of materlinear Jewish descent (=proof of Jewishness). Reply

Heather December 9, 2017
in response to Quarter-Jewish:

If one is testing mitochondrial dna (mtdna), the test would show results for the mother, mother's mother, mother's mother's mother, and so on. Since Jewishness is passed straight down through the girls indefinitely, then any girl born into a woman's direct line would be Jewish, whether she knew it or not. Boys born to these girls would be Jewish, but the boys' children would not be. If a woman had positive test results for an Ashkenaz woman in her direct female line, then yes she would be 100% Jewish according to halacha, regardless of the personal preferences and opinions of others. Reply

Rabbi Aryeh Moshen Brooklyn, NY August 1, 2017

There was a test of these tests and identical triplets submitted their DNA. The ethnic results each received were different, proving that they are less than 100% accurate. Reply

Barbara Niles Phoenix, Arizona August 2, 2017
in response to Rabbi Aryeh Moshen:

With all due respect, Rabbi, I find it hard to believe that DNA testing is not accurate. Is it possible that DNA testing is encroaching too far into Chabad territory where the Chabad way is the only way? Be that as it may, isn't it possible to "fudge" a bit and accept the findings so that this woman can be Jewish without having to go through conversion? Reply

Anonymous August 9, 2017
in response to Rabbi Aryeh Moshen:

Ancestry Match...Anonymous Each child gets a different distribution of the DNA...so results would vary with respect as to the accuracy of each test depending upon how much of the saliva is mixed with the solution. Reply

Rabbi Aryeh Moshen Brooklyn, NY August 9, 2017
in response to Barbara Niles:

BTW: I am not Chabad.

Orthodox Judaism does not accept "fudging" anything. Either one can prove that s/he is Jewish or cannot offer proof. I recently was asked by the Israeli Rabbinate to produce my credentials so that my signature on a Ketuvah written 25 years ago would be accepted as proof that the couple is Jewish. This is not unique to Chabad or any other group. As many claim to be Jewish but have no evidence, it is hard to accept them at their word, especially as some Reform Rabbis are not Halachically Jewish themselves. Reply

Barbara Niles Phoenix, Arizona August 22, 2017
in response to Rabbi Aryeh Moshen:

Reply to Rabbi Moshen Perhaps we, as "real" Jews need to be more accepting of others and take them at their word. If someone says he or she is Jewish, then accept him or her as Jewish. No one has ever asked me to prove that I am Jewish and it's a good thing because I wouldn't know how to prove it. If you can accept me as being Jewish, why not others? Also, can you expand on your comment about the reform rabbis? I have belonged to reform congregations all my life and it has never occurred to me to ask any of the rabbis for proof of their Jewishness. Could it be that one or more of them weren't really Jewish? .How about conservative rabbis? I was married in a conservative synagogue by a conservative rabbi almost 61 years ago. Oh my gosh - have we been living in "sin" all these years? What do we do now? Reply

joseph bklyn ny October 17, 2017
in response to Barbara Niles:

Now, you can go all around and say i'm American citizien, wont do any harm. But if you want benefits of being a US citizen you will have to proove. Vote, coming and going outside, etc etc .Will you say why, lived here all my life will not help. Judaism has 613 undebatable mitzzvos which canot be applied to non Jews, theres yichus involved , marring kohen, etc etc (learn the 4 parts Jewish code f law (can get kitzer SU aka Very abriged book of law in English) Reply

Barbara Niles Phoenix, Arizona August 1, 2017

Why would Sandra (and her daughters) have to go through the conversion process? Isn't it sufficient that her DNA shows she is Jewish? Why not just accept the DNA findings? Yes, I realize that one is only considered Jewish if one's mother is/was Jewish. However, sometimes we all have to give others the benefit of the doubt and accept them for what they say they are.. . Reply

Sandra Basurco Moorpark California July 31, 2017

Blessings Rabbi Freeman. I am a 66 year old Mexican lady. I recently had my DNA done and I found out I am Jewish. My mother always said that we were "possibly "Jewish just as her maternal grandmother Avran Cortez. My mother (may she Rest In Peace) always had an attraction to the Jewish religion, when I found out that I am not only Native American but also Portugués on my father's side ( that the Murua's came from Portugal) and my maternal ancestor were German/French. I have 2 daughters a doctor and a respiratory therapist. As you can education was very important in our lives. I am Baha'i, I have to Israel and I have always known that I was Jewish. I have been praying Jewish prayers in English for a very long time and I want to be become accepted as a Jew. Please advice as to how I should proceed. Thank you for your kindness for reading this long story. Reply

Tzvi Freeman July 31, 2017
in response to Sandra Basurco:

Sandra, if you are pulled by your Jewish soul, you should tell your children about it. They may wish to go in that direction.
Without sufficient documentation of your mother's genealogy, they would still need a conversion if they wish to join the Jewish people. So would you.
But perhaps they would at least be interested in learning more about Jewish teachings Reply

Sandra Basurco Moorpark CA August 3, 2017
in response to Tzvi Freeman:

Thank you Rabbi Freeman for your answer and prompt response to my e-mail. I raised my children catholic and they were also exposed to summer camp at Jewish temple. They inform me they do not want to convert. They asked me why my searching since I was catholic and converted Baha'i. I feel in my soul that I am Jewish but I can't convert if my family is not with me. I thank you for your kindness and your time taken. I know there is only one G-d and I love him with all my heart. Reply

Peggy Rider Sandwich, MA July 16, 2017

Good morning Rabbi Freemen!

As a 62 year old woman I have engrossed many hours researching the various religions, views and practices.

The knowledge I have of Israel is greater than that of the Torah and the Jewish customs.

I have always felt like a nomad spirit wandering and searching for my home and people. My late husband was Catholic and I chose Catholicism. After he passed I continued my search to find my spirit's desire to be apart of something greater more in commune with humanity and creation.

I recently discovered through DNA that I am 1.5 percent Ashkenazi Jewish. To many this maybe insignificant, but to me I danced!
I am home!

My mama they taught me at a young age about the Jewish people and the atrocities that they have endured. My heart ached for them yet I still felt how wonderful to be our Divine Father's chosen people.

My heart's desire is to know and follow the Torah.

Will you please help me with where to begin?

Thank you Rabbi!
Peace Reply

Rabbi Aryeh Moshen Brooklyn, NY June 25, 2017

For the Record Just so no one need guess, I am 67 years old.

The vast majority of the guests we've had over in the 40+ years we've been hosting have been wonderful and welcome. When it comes to guests not be appropriate, I've had a few who have gone a bit far. For example, the young man who came to our table in boxer shorts. Then there was the woman who insisted on singing very loudly even though I asked her (politely) to sing piano rather than forte (the issue of Kol Ishah as well as her style which forced us to avoid any singing when she was present). There was a man who would interrupt with snarky comments but refused to discuss anything. Then there was the woman who was given an open invitation to come to any of several meals but explicitly asked to make other arrangements for the Seder (several reasons) who came only to both Sedarim. Another was a man who made comments that insulted our guests' backgrounds.... Reply

Barbara Niles Phoenix, Arizona June 26, 2017
in response to Rabbi Aryeh Moshen:

Good Morning Rabbi - I am really enjoying our discussions although we have strayed a bit from the original topic, haven't we?

And also, for the record, I am 82 - almost 83 (next month).

My, you have had an interesting array of guests! However, it does sound as if most of these people had some problems in how to act and dress properly in the synagogue. Could it be that they just needed help with their decorum? Wouldn't that be the task of the rabbi and congregants to educate them? After all, isn't a rabbi a teacher and shouldn't all Jews help their fellow Jews (and others)? We are so quick to judge others on how they look and act (me, too) but perhaps we all need to look further into the reasons for another's actions. I seem to remember that xenophobia is one of the sins that we atone for on Yom Kippur. If only everyone would remember that when dealing with others...... Reply