Genetic genealogy in the digital age
Rabbi Jason Miller talks about his experience with ancestry.com and how he was able to identify relatives.
SSeveral years ago, I was contacted by a representative of ancestry.com who offered me the option of submitting my DNA using a saliva collection kit. I thought I would be able to get the results and then complete my family tree by going back several generations. I set up a ancestry.com account and started adding relatives to my family tree. When I received the DNA test results, they gave no surprises (99% Ashkenazi Jewish) and unfortunately there were no matches to my relatives or ancestors. This is because there were not enough people paying and submitting saliva DNA to the website.
Fast forward to last summer when I received an email alert from ancestry.com. I had actually forgotten that I had created this account. The alert told me that my first cousin had a DNA match and was probably my first or second cousin. It wasn’t earth shattering news for me since I already knew my first cousin was related to me, and I also knew how she was related. However, it piqued my interest once again in my genealogy.
I returned to the website and sure enough more DNA matches came up for potential cousins. I started going through other family trees that distant cousins had established as well as 100-year-old records that gave me clues to my long-lost relatives.
I immediately got lost in the black hole of genealogy, spending hours researching my family tree and sharing my findings with family members. I was amazed to see photos of my great-great-grandparents. I located photographs of the burial monuments of my ancestors, which provided details including their Hebrew names, date of birth, and date of death.
I discovered a ancestry.com account belonging to my mother’s first cousin, who had already spent a lot of time adding vital information and photographs of relatives to her family tree. In his collection, I was amazed to see photos of my grandparents (his aunt and uncle) that I had never seen before. I started to connect the dots of genealogy which led me to extend my family tree over several generations, and I was able to do this for my wife’s family tree as well.
While the monthly or annual subscription to ancestry.com (or other genealogy websites) can be quite expensive, I learned that many local libraries provide free access to ancestry.com and other online genealogy resources. I was able to take advantage of the access provided by the Farmington Hills Library, which gives library members full access to the ancestry.com website by logging into the library’s website.
In addition to the Ancestry website, I have also used the two familysearch.com and myheritage.com to view birth and death records and other useful documents, such as immigration records and high school yearbooks. The only time I spent money on this hobby was when I ordered a copy of my great-grandparents’ marriage license in New York.
A very useful resource for me in this genealogical research is the website findagrave.com. In a few cases, I was able to identify a cemetery in which a relative was buried, but no other information about that relative or a photograph of the monument was available. I simply clicked a button on the website that reads “Request a Photo” and within a day I was informed by email that photographs of my ancestors’ grave monuments had been updated on the website.
Being able to use genetic ancestry testing with historical documentation has been an exciting and very interesting way for me to dive into my genealogy. If I hadn’t submitted this saliva DNA sample several years ago and created an online account at ancestry.com, I never would have discovered the fascinating hobby of genetic genealogy. Now every time I get an email from ancestry.com with another DNA match or a clue to the origin of one of my distant ancestors, I’m intrigued and drop everything I do to log into the website.
In 2019, it was estimated that over 26 million people had added their DNA to the four major commercial ancestry databases, which include ancestry.com. At that time, it was predicted that if the pace continued, the Gene Treasures could contain data on the genetic makeup of more than 100 million people over the next two years. That means there’s a very good chance there are DNA Matches to long-lost relatives just waiting to be discovered on websites like ancestry.com.
In addition to discovering your roots, identifying your loved ones also has countless health benefits. I highly recommend the intriguing hobby of genetic genealogy.
Rabbi Jason Miller is a local educator and entrepreneur, writing about the intersection of technology with Jewish life in the 21st century. Follow him on Twitter at @RabbiJason and visit their website: www.mitzvahrabbi.com.