Emunah Murray’s passionate connection to Israel could not have been predicted from her upbringing. Growing up in a non-Jewish home, she has just one childhood memory of herself sitting with her grandparents, watching the news about the conflict in the Middle East. Other than that, she says, “I had zero exposure to Israel.”
As an adult, first as a Christian, then as a Messianic Christian and now as an Orthodox Jew, her six trips to Israel helped knit her soul to the land. In 2006, she came on an archeological study tour. “At that point, my husband and I were in a transition period [toward their eventual conversion to Judaism]. Since the tour was organized by a Messianic group, it had “a lot more Jewishness than your typical Christian tour. We didn’t travel on Shabbat. All food we ate was kosher.”
Her first impressions of Israel were positive.
“I was overwhelmed with the beauty of the country. We traveled from the Judean desert up to the Galilee. I was surprised by the varying landscapes. So many different landscapes in such a small country!” That trip also offered Murray her first taste of falafel and other “awesome Middle Eastern food.”
But it was Jerusalem that left the strongest impression.
“I felt a sense of holiness of the place. I was overwhelmed with emotion the first time I went to the Kotel. I cried, just to touch the wall and pray there.
“I felt a sense of sadness when I left Israel. I cried at the airport. I just felt a connection with the land and with the people and the spirituality here. I wanted to take it with me. I loved it so much, I came on the exact same tour the very next year.”
Already on a trajectory toward becoming Jewish, visiting Israel “made Judaism more real, being in the land of the Jews and in the biblical land. It made that connection to Judaism even stronger.
“Standing in places in the Bible makes your faith so much more real and more tangible. The week after visiting Abraham’s well, we read about it in the Torah portion. I told the group ‘I was there last week. I was standing in that very spot.’” On Murray’s third trip to Israel with her then 16-year-old daughter, they volunteered for Sar-El, working on a medical supply base near Tel Aviv for two weeks. At one of the evening programs, a high-ranking IDF officer came to thank the group, letting them know how valued their contribution to Israel was.
“It was a tangible way of blessing Israel and the Jewish people. His appreciation was very impactful,” Murray recalled.
“Working side-by-side with the soldiers, I could already picture myself here. Every place we went, I wondered if I could live there.”
In 2012, 15 months into their conversion process, Murray’s husband, Yosef, joined Emunah’s fourth trip to Israel.
“We had been studying on our own and studying with Chabad. When you’re in Israel, you can see more clearly the authenticity of the Bible and Judaism. And I just felt that Hashem [God] was guiding us and leading us.”
Murray and her husband discussed living in Israel part-time after retirement.
But that wasn’t enough for her.
After their conversion and her sixth trip to Israel, “I felt like I wanted to contribute and help be a builder of the land now and not wait seven years. It would tear my heart out to wait.
“Each time I left Israel, I feel a sense of sadness. There is a holiness in the air in Israel. When I returned to the States, as hard as I would try to hold onto this, each day it would slowly ebb away.
When you are in Israel, you have a constant infusion of this kedusha [holiness].
It’s hard to put into words how your soul feels this connection, but for me, it was an intense longing to return ‘home’ again.”
Although her six children are all adults, the decision to make aliya alone wasn’t a simple one.
“My husband is finishing a degree and another project that can generate remote income for him when he makes aliya. He said, ‘Go ahead and get everything set up and I’ll bring up the rear.’ “It was very obvious to him when we were here. He could see my joy in being here and how much it hurt me to have to leave. He could see my soul. He could see that I was a different person here.”
To prepare, Murray started a support group that met monthly for the year before her aliya. Some months she presented what she had learned in Nefesh b’Nefesh webinars. Other months they had guest speakers from Israel.
She also came on two pilot trips, saved as much money as she could for a year before her aliya and attended lots of Nefesh b’Nefesh webinars. She met with an Israeli in her former community to study Hebrew as a foundation for attending ulpan. Murray emphasized the importance of finding the right community and encouraged potential olim to spend as much time as possible in a prospective community before settling there.
Besides learning basic Hebrew, she “spent a lot of time learning about the differences in culture and mind-set,” with her Israeli tutor. “It’s so important, so you’re not surprised or taken aback by the differences, of which there are many.
“I thought public transportation would be my biggest adjustment, but public transportation here is awesome,” she insisted, “and it hasn’t been an issue at all to live here without a car.”
Even though she felt well-prepared on a practical level, “I was surprised at the outpouring of love and kindness of the community where I landed. Just meeting people in the bus and getting an invitation for a Shabbat meal. Or walking to the mall, there was a man sweeping outside of his house and he asked if we had a place for meals for Shabbat. It was an overwhelming sense of welcome and immediately having cheerleaders who could help in any way. The love and acceptance and welcoming was over the top.
“I feel very blessed and fortunate,” said Murray, who is currently writing a book about her and her husband’s spiritual journey and aliya. “It’s really amazing what I’ve been able to accomplish in four short months. Every day, I step outside and see the beautiful Judean mountains. I feel a sense of awe and deep gratitude to Hashem. I also feel very spiritually fulfilled with all the opportunities for learning here, which I take advantage of. That’s really different for me, because I was working two jobs in America. I feel grateful that I’m able to grow as a Jew here.
“It’s hard for me to be here without my husband, children and grandchildren. I also gave up my dream job of 21 years to fulfill my aliya dream. It’s hard, but you can figure out creative solutions if you want it bad enough.”