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“Tikkun Olam”: MJFF Celebrates Jewish American Heritage Month

Jewish American heritage month

Editor’s note: The Michael J. Fox Foundation planned to post a blog this May in celebration of Jewish American Heritage Month as part of our ongoing editorial calendar honoring our community. We share in the dismay at recent acts of anti-Semitism in cities across the United States and reassert our condemnation of hatred and intolerance in all forms.

Jewish American Heritage Month is a time for paying tribute to the generations of Jewish Americans who have helped form the fabric of American history, culture and society. Our own founder, Michael J. Fox, has spoken about the role of Judaism in his philosophy, his family life and his life with Parkinson’s. He has said: “I’m not Jewish, but everyone in my world is.” The Michael J. Fox Foundation (MJFF) is once again celebrating this month by amplifying the stories of Jewish Americans living with and caring for people with Parkinson’s disease (PD).

Although the exact cause of PD remains unknown, scientists are looking to better understand the complex genetic, environmental, aging and other risk factors that lead to Parkinson’s. Unlocking these answers could potentially help treat the disease, and to prevent it. Researchers estimate that about 30 percent of Parkinson’s risk is explained by genetics. Today, the field is studying a handful of genetic connections to PD, two of which (LRRK2 and GBA) account for a much greater number of cases in people of particular ethnic background, including Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jewish descent.

Though a small fraction of people with Parkinson’s develop the disease from a genetic mutation, researchers like Inga Peter, PhD, a professor and vice chair at the Department of Genetics and Genomic Science of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, are learning from those who do carry these genetic traits. With support from MJFF, Dr. Peter is identifying a combination of genetic, inflammation and gut bacteria markers to define subtypes of Parkinson’s. She shares how understanding genetic mutations could have implications on future treatments:

“In the era of personalized medicine, it is critical to have a broad representation of diverse populations in research. By studying historically isolated populations at higher risk of genetic susceptible diseases like those of Ashkenazi Jewish descent, researchers will be able to significantly improve our understanding of disease etiology and support the development of new individually tailored drug targets. Additionally, we’ll be able to make genetic screening much more accurate in identifying disease-causing mutations, which will lead to better preventive strategies.”

The Foundation has made significant investments in learning more about the role of genetic factors in PD through our research funding strategy and the Foundation’s landmark study, the Parkinson’s Progression Markers Initiative (PPMI). Susan Levy, 68, of Bainbridge Island, Washington, whose mother lived with PD for many years, shares why she decided to use her Ashkenazi Jewish heritage to advance breakthroughs by joining PPMI:

“I’ve thought about what made me automatically say yes. Obviously, one reason is my mother. And, secondly, knowledge is power. If I could help in any way to understand this disease, it will help others in the future.”

PPMI is on a mission to understand who’s at risk for Parkinson’s by studying people who don’t have the disease. Relatives of those with Parkinson’s are critical to the study, helping us better understand the role genetics play. You can make a difference for your loved one — and so many others. Take a short survey at

Diagnosed with PD in 2010, Michael Levine and his wife Carolyn of West Hartford, Connecticut, have taken on the Parkinson’s journey together by embracing resources, friends and support from their local synagogue. With their commitment to philanthropy and advancing Parkinson’s research, Michael and Carolyn share how a pillar of Judaism has shaped their support of MJFF’s mission:

“There’s a Jewish saying, ‘Tikkun Olam,’ which refers to acts of kindness to make the world a better place. As a family living with Parkinson’s, we remain hopeful in the possibilities for better treatments and a cure. We see the work of the Foundation’s research strategy and are inspired by their approach, even when one door closes, another one opens.”

Team Fox fundraiser Ryan Levine, 17, of Chagrin Falls, Ohio, created his bar mitzvah project at 12 combining his passion for filmmaking and love for his grandma who lives with PD. Raising more than $250,000 to date through his “Kids Film It Festival,” Ryan shared on NBC’s Today Show  how the event has grown:

“The festival has really grown more than I could have ever imagined. When we started off it was just a passion project. I wanted to help kids share their passion for filmmaking while also helping a great cause. And it really took off. Everyone was so happy to help, and people just joined in.”

Editor’s Note: The Foundation is always seeking to grow its diverse community of people touched by Parkinson’s disease. If interested, please email your story to along with the best contact information to reach you. We may share your story in future communications.

  • Dr. Inga Peter Presenting at 2019 PDTC.jpg

    Inga Peter, PhD, a professor and vice chair at the Department of Genetics and Genomic Science of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, presenting at MJFF's 2019 Parkinson's Disease Therapeutics Conference.

  • Susan Levy and Family.jpg

    Susan Levy, 68, of Bainbridge Island, Washington, alongside her family.

  • Carolyn and Michael Levine.jpg

    Diagnosed with PD in 2010, Michael Levine and his wife Carolyn of West Hartford, Connecticut, share their commitment to philanthropy and advancing PD research. 

  • Today Show_Ryan Levine.png

    Team Fox fundraiser Ryan Levine, 17, of Chagrin Falls, Ohio, on NBC’s Today Show in March 2020.

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