Stranger than fiction

It's been a long and winding road to Orthodox Judaism for one Lutheran minister.

By JENNY HAZAN
November 17, 2005 12:37
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Strangers No More: One Family's Exceptional Journey from Christianity to Judaism By Shlomo Ben Avraham Brunell Gefen $12.95 For as long as he can remember - and long before his name was Shlomo Ben Avraham Brunell - he has been driven by a thirst for spiritual truth. It's what led him to become a Lutheran minister in Finland for 12 years. But Brunell, who converted to Judaism in 1996 and moved to Israel along with his wife and four daughters, says his life-long thirst was not quenched until he discovered Judaism. "From being a minister in the church to becoming a happy Orthodox Jew living in Israel today - that's a pretty big step, or rather many small steps leading to this new, completely different life," says Brunell. "It was simply a craving in the soul that was not fulfilled until we got to the origin of the Bible." His first book, Strangers no More: One Family's Exceptional Journey from Christianity to Judaism, offers an autobiographical chronology, and also deals with aliya issues, the rabbinate, the Jewish Agency, the weaknesses of Christianity and what Brunell calls "the beauty of Judaism." "The holy Torah is like fresh spring water, pure and clean. You can't get any better guidelines for life, because it is life itself. Other religions might have bits and pieces of it, but the Torah is pure, genuine, original and true. None of these adjectives could describe Christianity," he says. For Brunell, converting was as much about embracing Judaism as it was about rejecting Christianity. "Many Christians claim the New Testament is like the second floor of a two-story building, built on the Hebrew Tanach (Bible). There is only one problem: the original blueprint does not include any second floor. It doesn't even allow a second floor to be built," says Brunell, referring to Devarim 4:2, which reads, "You shall not add to the word I command you, nor shall you subtract from it." "This is replacement theology." Brunell explains that according to official Christian dogma, the Church has replaced Israel. "But if there is no building permit, the structure will be dismantled. And I believe that the organization of the church will fall, as we saw Communism fall." There is a good reason why Brunell says of his book: "The Pope might banish it. The Bishop of Finland might burn it. But you better read it." WHEN BRUNELL announced his decision to step down from his ministerial post in 1990, the Church accused him of being a heretic. "In one meeting with the bishop and the Church Council, the bishop actually showed me the door and told me to leave. The church threw us out and we became strangers in Finland," recalls Brunell. "Then again, when approaching Judaism, the rabbinate threw us out three times," he jokes. "But we did not take 'no' for an answer." All kidding aside, there was a six-year spell between 1990 and Brunell's discovery of Judaism, a period he refers to as "religious no-man's land." "You don't want to be there," he says with a shudder. "It's like being left alone in a foreign place, on a dark street, stripped of your passport and ID, and you can't explain who you are, and even if you tried, no one would believe you. Leaving the church meant we had no religious or spiritual identity. "We spent a long time looking for the truth." He explains that throughout the course of his search, he came to realize that no denomination of Christianity was satisfactory. "Finally, when I peeled off what I realized was not true in Christianity, I came to the basics of my faith, and from there I was simply led to Judaism." It was this dark period in his life that inspired Brunell to write the book. "I want to help others who have veered off Judaism's path back home to their roots, to the life-giving waters of the Torah. I want to inspire fellow Jews to be strong in the Jewish faith. "The Torah is like the rudder of a ship; it can steer our life in the right direction and to the right goal, but we have to hold onto it." Brunell does not rule out the kabbalistic concept that his soul was banished from inclusion within the Jewish people because of sin. "Perhaps I was punished by being cut off from the nation, and my soul was given to this boy born to Christian parents in a far-off place like Finland," he suggests. "In order to repair the damage, and to make tikkun, I had to come back. I was given one chance. I had to take it." That's not to say that Brunell's "reentry" has been easy. In addition to the fact that the Israeli rabbinate required the family to convert a second time (despite an Orthodox conversion in Finland), finding work in Israel was not easy. "Coming here and trying to earn a living with a degree in theology from Finland... I'll just say there's not many ads for that." But after settling first in the absorption center in Ra'anana, Brunell found a job at American office furniture company Steelcase, where he has worked for the past eight years. "We left Finland and the church behind us despite the good and easy life, and we live in Israel today regardless of the hardships. In Israel, life is hard, as we all know. But we have a caring community, a minyan to pray with, a shul to go to, and the hagim are public holidays. This is heaven for my soul! "We certainly don't feel like strangers any more."

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