CHICAGO (JTA) – U.S. Army Capt. Johnie Bath says the Shema every morning when he wakes up and every night before he goes to sleep.
He also recites the prayer whenever he gets into what he calls “a hairy situation.” Those situations come up frequently these days: He is stationed in Iraq as part of a transition team helping to prepare the Iraqi army to take over when U.S. troops leave.
Bath, 35, is a career army man and a Jew-by-choice who formally converted at Congregation B’nai Tikvah, a Conservative synagogue in the Chicago suburb of Deerfield, in February 2007, just before he was sent to Iraq.
His wife, Jamie, comes from a prominent Chicago-area Jewish family, but Bath was interested in Judaism even before they met on an Internet dating service, he said by phone from his Chicago home, two days before returning to Iraq on Dec. 20.
Bath and his wife were married two years ago and have two children, 1-year-old twins Nathaniel and Netanya, “spelled just like the Israeli city,” he explained.
The family hit a rough patch in April when Nathaniel, then 4 months old, had to have open heart surgery for a congenital heart defect, a condition he was born with and will have for the rest of his life. He is
now doing well but may have to have another operation.
Bath was able to be home for the surgery, then had to leave again. “That was emotionally very difficult for him,” his wife said.
“To create a bond” with the children that lasts “is difficult,” she said. The twins “look at him like someone they think they know but who is still a stranger in a way.”
In Iraq, being away from home and family is the hardest part, Bath said. He tries to keep in close touch with Jamie and the kids; hearing from them “can add to your drive and motivation and cheer you up on days that aren’t very good.”
But even when he’s not able to get through by phone or e-mail, “I try
to never let it affect my job. You have your duty first, and you have to commit to that,” he said.
As for the situation in Iraq, he said, “I feel good about what I’m doing.”
“I’m very confident I’m doing a good job and I definitely feel like I make an impact. I can’t speak on behalf of everybody in my unit, but I feel good about it.”
Bath’s mother-in-law is Caryn Rosen Adelman, a well-known leader in the Jewish community in Chicago and nationally, and she is a past president of JTA. Jamie Bath was brought up in a Conservative Jewish home, but she never pressured or even urged her husband to convert, she said.
“He decided to convert on his own, and that was amazing,” she said. “I’ve always believed you should never force or even ask somebody” to convert. “All along I was supportive but never pushed him. I thought that was important.” When Bath made the decision, “I was silently thrilled, and I don’t think I’ve ever told him.”
“I always planned to have a Jewish family, but to have a Jewish husband makes my life complete,” she said.
Bath grew up in Ohio without much religion of any kind. That didn’t feel right to him.
“I felt the need to fill a void in that part of my life,” he said. “I looked into different religions but not Judaism because I didn’t know a lot about it. I always struggled with certain questions.
“Most people around me were Christians, and I had trouble with parts of that religion. Judaism answered a lot of those questions, and I started looking into it. It felt so right, even before I met Jamie.”
As he studied and learned more, “it was like a light shining, a great, obvious thing.”
He says he is grateful that Jamie and her family “were very supportive of letting me figure out how much I wanted to be involved. Her mom is knowledgeable and helpful and was always available.”
“I’m so glad I was able to finish the conversion” before going to Iraq,
he said. “I want to know more about Judaism, to continue to learn, but it’s
comforting knowing that that part of my life is on track.”
Right now there is the situation in Iraq to deal with. He will be there until the spring, stationed mainly in Baghdad, then will stay on in the Army, which has been his professional home for 15 years.
Bath’s Judaism helps him deal with the situations he faces in the war-torn country, he said.
Reciting the Shema “whenever I’m a little nervous, that helps. It’s my way of keeping” Judaism close. He is not able to keep kosher, although he would like to. “There are certain things I don’t do. I don’t eat pork.”
Because of the solitary nature of his job which, like other military personnel, he can’t speak about in detail, he hasn’t met any other Jews in the Army.If he did, he said, he “would go out of my way to join them. I don’t advertise my religion, but I don’t hide it.”
Jamie Bath said that while she is not happy her husband is in Iraq, “I’m very proud of him.”
While he is away, the support of members of her synagogue, who prayed for Nathaniel during his heart surgery, is especially helpful.
“For someone like my husband, who is new” to Judaism, she said, “knowing you have a whole community looking out for you – it means a lot.”