A divine route to the bridal path

The story of a Kuwaiti-Finnish marriage – with guests from Sweden, Abu Dhabi and Bnei Brak.

Mark (Mordechai) Halawa and Linda Brunell under their huppa. (photo credit: YONIT SCHILLER)
Mark (Mordechai) Halawa and Linda Brunell under their huppa.
(photo credit: YONIT SCHILLER)
With Tisha Be’av over, the summer’s wedding season began this week. And one of the most festive weddings this writer has ever attended was the nuptials of Kuwaiti- born Mark (Mordechai) Halawa and Finnish-born Linda Brunell, which took place on Wednesday at Ness Harim in the Judean Hills.
Officiating was Rabbi Israel Weisel of Bnei Brak. Among the hundreds of guests were streimelwearing Belzer Hassidim, sunburned Swedish Lutherans who had flown in from Scandinavia in a show of Zionist support and family ties, and friends from Abu Dhabi.
Halawa, in his mid-30s, spoke about the divinely ordained path that brought him back to Judaism.
His grandmother, Ruwaida, née Mizrahi, was born in Jerusalem during the British Mandate. She married Muhammad al-Masri, a Jordanian soldier from Nablus, and the couple ended up stationed at Zarqa, Jordan. Following the 1970 Black September uprising, al-Masri – who was a high-ranking officer in Jordan’s Arab Legion – was cashiered when King Hussein purged his army of Palestinians. The family relocated to Kuwait.
Thus Halawa’s mother moved to Kuwait when she was a teenager.
There she met and married her husband. Opening an engineering and contracting business, the family grew wealthy on government contracts from Kuwait’s ruling as- Sabah clan. But the good times came crashing down in 1990 when Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein occupied the tiny Gulf emirate.
Halawa’s family, which was on vacation in Spain when the invasion of Kuwait took place, became exiles.
They ended up in London, Canada, where Mark studied psychology and business at the University of Western Ontario. There, in a chance meeting in the school’s library, he fell into a conversation with a long-bearded professor of philosophy named Yitzhak Bloch. After considerable probing, the Chabad rabbi pronounced Halawa halachically Jewish by virtue of his being the descendant of a Jewish woman. Halawa protested that he was a Muslim.
But the truth won out. After much soul-searching, including years at Jerusalem’s Aish Hatorah Yeshiva, he returned to the fold of Jewish life.
LINDA BRUNELL’S family story is equally extraordinary. Her father, Ole Brunell, was born in a Swedish-speaking village on the west coast of Finland. Growing up in an insular community, he attended seminary and university in Turku, Finland, and was ordained as a Lutheran minister. After leading several congregations across Finland, he and his family relocated to Australia to minister to a Finnish-speaking church in Brisbane.
But Brunell and his wife, Runa, began to question the theological underpinnings of Christianity. Finally, in 1991, he renounced Christianity and left his job as a minister, along with the car, vicarage and status that went with it. After a long and difficult path, the family converted to Judaism and made aliya in 1996. Ole and Runa became Shlomo and Ruth. All four of the Brunell daughters have married Israelis.
Linda works as a patent paralegal with a major Tel Aviv law firm. Halawa is a businessman with extensive contacts and dealings across the Middle East. He is also a speaker on the Chabad circuit in North America and the UK.
“This is the happiest day of my life,” Brunell said. “Mark and I share the same goals, despite our different backgrounds, of building a family in Israel. I’m very grateful to my parents for bringing my sisters and me on this path. And I’m sure they’re happy to have their last daughter married off.”
Halawa added, “Many people asked Linda and me where we were going to get married. Is there a better place than the land of my ancestors? I’m only sorry that my immediate family isn’t here, but I’ve gained a whole new family – the entire Jewish people is now my family. My dream of marrying a Jew and establishing a Jewish home has become a reality. Baruch Hashem.”