Choosing Judaism

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Clockwise from top left: Dovid Yehuda Imbo reading Torah, Photo credit: Yechezkel Elkins; Joseph Steiner speaks at his conversion celebration, Photo credit: Tara Engelberg; Elizabeth Atwater; Rick Williams.

When Ruth the Moabite clung to her mother-in-law with the famous words, "Wherever you go, I will go, wherever you live, I will live-your people will be my people and your God my God," she linked her destiny forever with the Jewish people.

Over 3,000 years later, people from all different paths of life continue to choose Judaism as their religion, community, and way of life. 

In honor of Shavuot, we profile the inspiring stories of four Chicago-area Jews-by-Choice. 

Dovid Yehuda Imbo

Professor Dovid Yehuda Imbo grew up in an Italian family on Chicago's Near West Side.

"My childhood was challenging. There was a lot of crime, violence, and poverty in my neighborhood. Some of my friends didn't make it to adulthood. But there were also many kind and wonderful people," he said.

He attended a Catholic elementary school, Lane Tech High School, and then entered the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). It was at UIC that his life took an unexpected turn. "Here I was-this street kid with no money and no pedigree-and I decided to study theoretical physics, philosophy, and mathematics."

After obtaining his bachelor's degree at UIC, he received his Ph.D. from the University of Texas, and was awarded a prestigious post-doctoral fellowship at Harvard University. He then returned to UIC as a faculty member in 1992.

Throughout his life, Imbo was often mistaken for a Jew. "People would always tell me that I look Jewish. Sometimes people would call out to me in Yiddish or try to get me to join a minyan ," he laughs.

In the late 90s, he began reading esoteric Jewish texts with great interest. It was around this time that he met his future wife, Sara Freida, a Jewish woman who had grown up in a Conservative Jewish home. In one of their first serious discussions, she asked him that if they were to marry, would he be willing to raise their children Jewish. "I said, 'Yes,' that would be fantastic!'" The couple married and began raising their daughter in the Lakeview neighborhood. It was there that they began to grow Jewishly as a family.

While in Lakeview, Imbo developed a close relationship with Rabbi Baruch Hertz, the leader of Congregation Bnei Ruven in West Rogers Park, who also founded the Lakeview Chabad House with his wife Chanie. "They were always very welcoming even though they knew I wasn't Jewish," said Imbo.

"The more I looked into it, the more fascinated I became with Hasidic philosophical and ethical teachings," he said, noting that he found surprisingly deep connections between many of these teachings and his own research in quantum physics.

Then three years ago, under Rabbi Hertz's guidance, Imbo began studying with a variety of Chabad rabbis. He quickly evolved from studying a few hours a week with them, to learning practically every day. Conversion seemed a natural progression. "We had started to live an authentic Jewish life on a day-to-day basis." He met with members of the  beit din (rabbinic court) of the Chicago Rabbinical Council (CRC) in 2016 to begin the conversion process, with Rabbi Hertz's sponsorship. "They were all so loving and supportive," said Imbo. The family then decided to move to West Rogers Park to join Hertz's congregation. 

Imbo completed his conversion in 2017 at the age of 55, just days before Passover. "I've always been wandering and looking for a spiritual home, but it wasn't until I got to the Chabad community that I actually found one."

Joseph Steiner 

When he was only five years old, Joe Steiner told his mother that he was going to be Jewish.

And this once Catholic kid raised on the Northwest side of Chicago was true to his word. "It felt like the right thing for me to do," the 30-year-old said.

Having gone to both Catholic and public school as a child, it was at the homes of Jewish friends growing up that his connection to living a Jewish life took root. 

As an adult, Steiner, an emergency medical services professional, was stationed as a security guard at both B'nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim Congregation (BJBE) and the Rochelle Zell Jewish High School in Deerfield. Being in these Jewish environments awakened Steiner's interest in Judaism, and after connecting with BJBE's then Associate Rabbi Brian Stoller, he began attending Shabbat services in 2014. 

"One night I just felt this connection with God. That hadn't happened since I was a kid in grade school. Something just felt right inside," said Steiner.

He decided to officially become a Jew and began meeting with the clergy at BJBE for an entire year. Steiner even joined BJBE in New Orleans on a volunteer mission to rebuild the city.

At Rochelle Zell Jewish High School, Academic Dean Bruce Scher also mentored Steiner while he was in the process of conversion, helping him learn to read Hebrew and guiding him. But what has inspired Steiner the most is the support he's received from the Jewish community.

On December 4, 2015, Steiner converted to Judaism.

"It's been a very positive experience and the community has been everything to me," he said. "On the day of my conversion I went from the community mikvah (ritual bath) in Wilmette to a service at BJBE and all the seniors from the high school came for that to welcome me officially as a Jew."  

Elizabeth Atwater

Elizabeth Atwater was raised Southern Baptist in a family that attended church every Sunday. She even briefly considered becoming a missionary in high school, but by her early 20s, she started falling away from that path. 

Interested in spirituality, she first turned to yoga and meditation. "I developed a personal, more consistent spiritual practice involving prayer and trying to discern the right way to act to be a force for good in the world," said the 36-year-old business analyst who grew up in a suburb outside Chicago.

Although she has many Jewish friends, the thought that Judaism could be her intended path didn't occur to her until two years ago when a Jewish friend, an avowed atheist, began a program to rediscover her Judaism. Atwater joined her, and as it was the Jewish high holidays, she soon delved into deep reading and reflection about what the high holidays mean.

"I experienced a sense of longing that I had never felt before. There was also a sadness that this beauty and this tradition were not mine and would not ever be mine," she said.

And yet, Atwater felt the pull so strongly that she continued her reading about Judaism. 

When she stumbled upon a "Taste of Judaism" course at Chicago's Temple Sholom and she looked around the room at all of the people from different paths,  she began to think that perhaps becoming Jewish was possible for her. So she set about living an entire year by the Jewish calendar. "I really believe that becoming Jewish is the most significant decision I could make and I didn't think it could be done lightly," she said.

She attended programs and classes and celebrated holidays at Temple Sholom and Mishkan Chicago, a Jewish spiritual community, and started taking a Torah study class at Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago before deciding to pursue her conversion there. 

During the height of her studies, she was taking classes at Anshe Emet five days a week, absorbing everything from Hebrew to Jewish heritage.

Atwater formally converted last year before a beit din. "More than anything else, converting to Judaism is my soul coming home," she said. "It's like that feeling when you return home from vacation and when you open the door you are so much more at peace than you ever were on vacation but only once you're home do you know it."  

Rick Williams

When Rick Williams fell in love with a Jewish woman over 25 years ago, he also fell in love with how her close-knit family celebrated Shabbat.

"The tradition of Shabbat was very strong for my wife and her five siblings who grew up doing Shabbat and continued to stay close even as adults. That tradition really touched something in me. Just getting together every Friday night as a family meant a lot to me," said Rick Williams about his longtime wife, Laurie.

Growing up in a small town in Maryland, his father was in the hospitality business, which made family meals a rarity. There wasn't a lot of religion in his home, either. While Williams did attend a Baptist youth camp one summer, his parents did not raise their children with any religion.

But for the 52-year-old recruiter for a construction supply company from Highland Park, Judaism, which began through marriage, has evolved into a true way of life. After moving to Chicago from California, the couple joined North Shore Congregation Israel (NCSI) in Glencoe where their son celebrated his bar mitzvah. The family attended High Holiday services and soon Williams became to hunger for more. "I was so drawn to learning. It just felt right," he said.

First, he began taking classes at NCSI. Then, Rabbi Lisa Greene approached him and asked if he would be interested in the adult b'nai mitzvah class, and Williams decided to give it a try. "This has all been such a natural process," he said. "The things that I learned and heard in Temple just stuck a chord with me, such as doing mitzvot and learning about tikkun olam (repairing the world) . These were things that felt so right and so important."

At a certain point, the conversion process seemed a natural next step. For two years, Williams took classes on Judaism at NSCI. He also learned Hebrew fundamentals and the prayers and celebrated his bar mitzvah.  

Williams officially converted in 2015 and continues to be an active member of NSCI where he regularly chants from the Torah on Shabbat and is part of the choir.

"I felt like I was living a Jewish life, but now I have the guidance and structure of the Torah," he said. "Everything has come together for me and with NSCI I also have a spiritual home and sense of community." 


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