On a recent Sunday morning, a group of congregants sat talking over lox, bagels and orange juice in an alcove off the sanctuary in Lubavitch Chabad of Skokie, a middle-class suburb of Chicago. The occasion was a pidyon haben—or “redemption of the [firstborn] son”—a ceremony where the father of a firstborn male redeems his son by giving a Kohen (priestly descendent of Aaron) five silver coins 30 days after the baby’s birth.

But there was no baby in sight. Instead, 45-year-old Marc (Michoel) Shudnow, sporting a neat brown beard and a Chassidic robe, was redeeming himself, as his wife and children looked on. While it is a father’s obligation to redeem his baby son, if the father neglects to do his duty, the mitzvah devolves upon the son. In this case, the son decided to redeem himself in style.

Speaking Aramaic, the ancient Jewish vernacular preserved in the Talmud and other texts, Marc and the Kohen (Dovid Grinker) had the following exchange:

Marc: “I am a firstborn, and I am rightfully yours.”

Dovid: “Would you prefer to be mine, or would you like to give me the five selahs that you are obligated to give as your redemption?”

Marc: “I want to redeem myself, and here [are the coins].”

Following the celebratory meal, Marc shared the path that brought him to this milestone, as well as his family’s journey to Torah Judaism. Here is his story:

I grew up in Elk Grove Village, a suburb of Chicago as far from anything Jewish that you could ever imagine. To the best of my knowledge, we were one of just four Jewish families in the area. Our Catholic neighbors would scrawl swastikas on our properties, call our homes and play German music into the phone, and egg our houses. Once, they even tried blowing up one family’s home by turning on their gas grill.

That was my introduction to my Jewish identity. It was a pretty negative association.

By the time Shudnow was 17, he was enrolled in the U.S. Army.
By the time Shudnow was 17, he was enrolled in the U.S. Army.

I was third-generation-born American, and our family retained very few Jewish practices. While my grandparents were alive, we had a seder in a Jewish (but decidedly non-kosher) bagel restaurant, and we would sometimes go to McDonalds on Yom Kippur afternoon when we got bored of services. I was sent to Hebrew school—the only one in the area that did not require synagogue membership—and even had my bar mitzvah in an old Conservative synagogue in Chicago.

Like most of my Hebrew-school classmates, by the time I became a bar mitzvah, I was done with Judaism.

When I was 16, we moved. In my new school, I was eligible to graduate high school early. By the time I turned 17, I was out of school and enrolled in the U.S. Armed Forces. I started out in the reserves, then went full-time and was stationed in Fort McClellan in Alabama.

In those days, just about everyone in the Army went to church. Even though I did nothing Jewish, I still didn’t attend with them. One day, I was tooling around base and saw a door with a Star of David on it. Recognizing something Jewish, I decided to check it out.

'A Benefit in Being Jewish'

I met the chaplain, who informed me that since I was Jewish, I got to celebrate the Sabbath by spending time in the officers’ mess every Saturday, taking a shower and enjoying the other luxuries that it had to offer.

There were only six other Jews on base, and they were all officers, so it was a pretty good deal for me. It was the first time I saw a benefit in being Jewish.

After leaving the Army, I was called back to serve in Iraq in Operation Desert Storm. I went to college and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in accounting and a master’s in finance.

I had gotten married right before I was called to Iraq. By the time I was discharged, the marriage was dead.

In time, I remarried and had two daughters. Living in a Chicago neighborhood, our family considered ourselves Reform Jews. We attended temple every once in a while and even decorated a Chanukah bush with our girls. As the girls grew, we began to attend temple more often, drawn in by the playgroups and other activities.

A few years later, I found myself a single father with full custody of two girls. We relocated to Lincolnwood, north of Chicago, and I enrolled the girls in the local Reform Sunday school.

Shudnow gradually made his way towards being fully observant, supported by family, friends and Chabad.
Shudnow gradually made his way towards being fully observant, supported by family, friends and Chabad.

Not long after my move, I met Iva, who had a son not much younger than my girls. She wasn’t Jewish, but that didn’t bother me at the time.

We got married and agreed that she would convert at my temple, but that her son Nick would remain Christian. He was 4 years old at the time.

As soon as he realized that his new sisters went to Hebrew school every week, he wanted to go as well. We tried to dissuade him, but he was determined. He even stopped speaking to Iva until she relented. We spoke to the school, and they let him attend “for a few weeks.”

The “few weeks” kept on dragging on, as he insisted that he wanted to go. For Chanukah that year, we went to the temple gift shop and got some paraphernalia, Nick insisted on getting a mezuzah necklace.

By the time he was 7, he insisted on converting, like his mother did. Knowing full well that he didn’t need to do it, he underwent circumcision and never complained about the pain.

As time passed, we became more involved in the temple. Eventually, I was teaching the junior-high-school-aged students. My challenge was to keep them involved even after their bar and bat mitzvahs. As a teacher, I encouraged the boys to wearkipahs in the sanctuary.

The synagogue leadership weren’t happy with what they viewed as religious coercion, and we ended up leaving that temple for a Conservative congregation, which was consistent with our family’s slow but steady march toward greater Jewish involvement.

Our stay there ended during the 2008 presidential campaign, when the rabbi used the pulpit to promote his candidate of choice. From there, we went to a more traditional Conservative congregation where the rabbi promised he would not mix politics with Judaism.

A major step for our family was when I and my daughter Ana decided to only eat kosher products at home. Around the same time, our synagogue had announced that it would be “downsizing,” and that they would be relocating to a church. We started searching for another place to worship yet again.

That summer, we needed to be in northern Michigan over the July Fourth weekend. I called around looking for a kosher restaurant; of course, there was nothing.

After lots of calls and Google searches, we ended up with a Shabbat-meal invitation from Rabbi Yisroel and Shaina Chana Weingarten, co-directors of Chabad House Lubavitch of Eastern Michigan in Flint, Mich.

Congregants observe the Sunday-morning proceedings.
Congregants observe the Sunday-morning proceedings.

Iva and I ended up attending alone, since Nick preferred to stay in the hotel room. The first thing that struck us was how many children the Weingartens have—11. The second thing that made a deep impression is the love that is palpable in their home. By just observing them, we saw that each and every member of the family cared for every other one in a way that we had never seen before. The two of us were just so amazed.

When we came home, we told the girls about what we had seen at Chabad. Two weeks later, we made arrangements to attend Shabbat services at Lubavitch Chabad of Skokie, three miles from our home.

Knowing that Orthodox Jews don’t drive to synagogue, we parked the car around the corner and walked into the Chabad House, not knowing what to expect. I’ll have to admit that I was quite lost during services. After Kiddush, we were all invited to the home of Rabbi Yochanan and Yona Posner for the Shabbat meal.

That week, we had a family vote. We had visited some Conservative synagogues and needed to decide if we would join one of them or go with Chabad. To my surprise, my wife and three kids all voted for Chabad, and that was where we began to go every week.

Eventually, we began to park farther and farther away from the synagogue, walking another block each week. By late fall, we were walking all the way—three miles each direction. We were becoming more observant all the time, and knew that Iva and Nick would need to convert with a recognized rabbinic organization. In 2010, we began the process under the auspices of the cRc (Chicago Rabbinical Council).

By the next year, the girls—Dara and Ana (now known as Doronah and Channah Leah)—were enrolled in the Lubavitch Girls High School in Chicago. The administration was originally very wary of accepting them since they were coming directly from public school. But they were determined to succeed—and they did!

By the end of 2011, the conversions were finalized. My wife (now Chava) and I remarried according to halachah, Jewish law, and Rabbi Posner koshered our kitchen. By then, we were a fully observant family.

All the while, Noach Dov (as Nick is now known) was still in public school since we could not find a boy’s yeshivah that would accept him. He was not very happy about it. Despite Muslim bullies, he wore his kipah to class every day and made the best of the circumstances. At the same time, he was keeping up with his Judaic studies at home and with Rabbi Chaim Telsner of Skokie Chabad.

Just when things were getting really desperate, I learned of an option. I was talking with Rabbi Binyamin Walters, who had just begun teaching at Yeshivah Netzach Eliyahu, a new high school program for boys with unique educational needs. Although they did not enroll boys transferring from public school at that time, we managed to work things out, and Noach was finally in a healthy Torah environment.

Thank G‑d, he has been thriving ever since.

This year, Doronah is in seminary in Israel; Channah and Noach are in Jewish high schools in Chicago; Chava is taking regular Torah classes; and I am studying for semichah (rabbinical ordination) under the rubric of Yeshiva Pirchei Shoshanim, an online program.

The Shudnow family: Marc, his wife Chava (Iva), and children, from left, Noach Dov (Nick), Doronah (Dara) and Channah Leah (Ana)
The Shudnow family: Marc, his wife Chava (Iva), and children, from left, Noach Dov (Nick), Doronah (Dara) and Channah Leah (Ana)

I had known for some time about the mitzvah of pidyon haben and had no doubt that it had not been done for me, so I decided to go for it in honor of the new year, 5775.

The lox and bagels have long been finished, and everyone has gone home, but the joyous event will be long remembered by the Shudnow family and the Skokie Jewish community.