The night Jeremy made me a raft and a river out of cardboard was when I first told him I loved him. By the time he proposed to me — after a scavenger hunt through New York City, on a boat in Central Park — we already knew we were going to get married. Like so many Modern Orthodox couples, we had started discussing the future fairly early in our relationship. In fact, having been unofficially engaged for two months, we had already looked at halls and chosen a band.
Most important, by the time we told the world of our engagement, Jeremy and I had also debated genetic testing and were going through an anxious eight weeks awaiting our results.
As Ashkenazi Jews at elevated risk for passing on a gamut of dreaded disease to our children, including Tay-Sachs carriers in Jeremy’s family, there was no question about getting screened. But from the perspective of the most traditional Orthodox communities, our relationship of four months had gone on much longer than it should have before learning about our genetic compatibility.
Because many Orthodox couples meet through matchmakers, the individuals can prevent genetic incompatibility — and a possibly heart-wrenching end to a relationship — simply by never dating anyone who carries the same recessive disorder.
That’s why an unusually secretive genetic screening organization, Dor Yeshorim, which works within the shidduch system of the Orthodox world, was established in the 1980s.
The idea of Dor Yeshorim — literally, “upright generations” — is to prevent genetic disorders within the Jewish community in a way that carriers don’t feel stigmatized.
Each client is tested and issued a personal identification number (PIN). When a couple wants to check their compatibility, they call with their respective PINs. Within two days, the organization, based in Brooklyn and with offices in Israel and England, will check if both individuals are carriers of the same recessive gene and report only whether the pair is genetically compatible — or not. It will not, however, reveal the genetic details of the results.
Thus, those who use Dor Yeshorim will not be told whether they are carriers of any of the 10 common Ashkenazic diseases that Dor Yeshorim tests for.
On the other hand, their marriage chances will not be thwarted by anyone learning that information. The individual will simply know who they should or should not marry.
Five years ago, when I was in 12th grade at Yeshiva of Greater Washington, an Orthodox school in Silver Spring, Md., my high school brought in Dor Yeshorim to test our senior class and, ostensibly, help us in the quest for the marriage we would all presumably be pursuing in the very near future. I sat in my school’s one-room library and got my blood drawn along with my classmates, then was assigned a PIN associated with my results.
My fiancé made it clear that he wanted no part of that system. Jeremy doesn’t think Dor Yeshorim works for our circle of Modern Orthodoxy, and I agree: Knowledge is too highly valued and genetic health too strongly stressed for our genetic makeup to be kept secret from us.
Others also have been critical of Dor Yeshorim, even from within other circles of Orthodoxy. Some believe it does not test for enough diseases — it currently tests for 10 diseases for which Jews are more likely to be carriers of recessive genes. Other genetic services test for 18 such diseases.
Rabbi Moshe Tendler, a leading Modern Orthodox rabbi at Yeshiva University, said in a recent interview with me: “I believe Dor Yeshorim has no function right now.” While he commended them on their “one contribution,” namely, making the ultra-Orthodox community aware of the need for genetic testing, Rabbi Tendler said their job is done. He pointed to their practice of anonymity, which he believes is “medically unethical.”