Chance encounters of the Jerusalem kind

Fate and football intervened, and now former NFL player Yosef Murray is making aliyah

Murray with 10th and 11th graders at Dekel Vilnai High School in Ma’aleh Adumim (photo credit: YOSEF MURRAY)
Murray with 10th and 11th graders at Dekel Vilnai High School in Ma’aleh Adumim
(photo credit: YOSEF MURRAY)
Former NFL football player and convert to Judaism Yosef (formerly Calvin) Murray was expecting his recent visit to Israel, his sixth time here, to offer him the chance to relax. He intended to spend a month with his wife and their friends in Israel, just having a good time and enjoying the weather and the scenery.
Fate had other plans.
Early in his visit, Murray walked into a Burger’s Bar in Ma’aleh Adumim and overheard two high-school boys talking about football in English. “I said, ‘You guys play football?’” Murray recalled.
As a result of that chance encounter, the young players on the Judean Warriors high-school team contacted their coach, Michael Anthony, who invited the NFL alumnus to come to a game at Kraft Stadium and give the team a motivational talk.
They won that game 102-0.
Murray is no stranger to the task of encouraging young people. In Columbus, Ohio, he works with adolescents, mentoring dozens of kids at a time. The kids he mentors have all been dealt tough blows in their young lives, including abandonment, drugs, suicide, physical abuse and more. Whatever their situation, Murray provides educational and emotional support. He helps his adolescents set goals and rewards them for achieving their goals.
“I’ve learned over the past 20 years not to judge people based on their circumstances. I don’t want to know a kid’s background. I tell them we’re starting with a clean state, starting positive. We build our relationship from there,” Murray explained.
Murray was born into a Baptist family in New Jersey in 1958, the oldest of five children. He played for Ohio State from 1977 to 1980 and was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1981. He played two seasons with the NFL before an injury ended his football career.
Given his background, delivering an inspiring talk to an American-style football team in Jerusalem came naturally.
“I talked a lot of football – the importance of unity, of coming together, of playing together and how to be a teammate. I told them that just like how in football there are three components – offense, defense and special teams – so there is prayer three times a day.
“I got so much positive feedback. Parents came up because they heard me speaking. Also guys who played in the pro league came up to me after. I ended up talking to those guys one-onone about life and their relationship with God. They asked me why I chose to be a Jew. I heard that question a lot. They were blown away that you would choose to be a Jew when you didn’t grow up that way.”
SHORTLY THEREAFTER, Murray met Mara Goldblatt, who teaches English at Dekel Vilnai High School in Ma’aleh Adumim. Goldblatt asked if he would come and speak to her class. Murray accepted the invitation and spoke to the group of 10th and 11th grade students about “making good choices in life.
“It was a public school, so I had to be careful about not talking too much Torah. These kids are just learning English, so I had to speak slowly. I had to concentrate very much on what I was saying. This was the hardest of all the talks I gave,” Murray commented.
Another chance encounter on the streets of Jerusalem led to yet a third opportunity to speak to young people in Israel.
“Coming back from breakfast with friends on Ben-Yehuda [Street], I was standing at the light rail and these two boys were on the train. I had a shirt that said NFL Alumni. One of the boys asked me ‘Did you play or are you just wearing the shirt?’”
The young men were intrigued enough by their conversation, which lasted just one stop on the light rail, to go online and track Murray down through his wife Emunah’s blog. They reconnected with an email to his wife and invited Murray to come speak to their class at Yeshivat Hakotel in the Old City.
About that talk, Murray effused, “For me, it was electrifying. They are listening to every single word I’m saying. I told them, ‘You boys could change Jerusalem with your unity.’ These guys took the time to come to listen. It was during a break. It was their personal time they gave up.
“There was definitely a spiritual bond that none of us will forget. You could really feel the presence of Hashem [God] there with us. He was orchestrating the whole thing. After the talk, several of the students sent me follow- up text messages discussing their spiritual lives.
“Ever since the last talk, I’ve been trying to figure out what in the world just happened to me. I can’t find the words to describe what happened. Maybe when I get back to the United States, it will become clear. It was definitely a spiritual high. I can see the hand of Hashem guiding everything. Like being on a path in a beautiful park. I could see His hand just guiding me at every step.”
On this same trip, Murray also addressed English- speaking high school boys at Yerushalayim Torah Academy in Bayit Vegan and the Jerusalem Lions high-school football team, making a total of five serendipitous opportunities to bring his inspiring message to young people in Israel.
“They need someone to be real with them. I see a kid and I don’t judge them. I use the experiences of the kids in Ohio. You need to be appreciative of the things you have. Some of my kids don’t have parents. Their parents are either dead or in jail. Those kids are 11, 12 and 13 years old, alone and trying to find their way in this world. I told the kids in Israel, ‘Be grateful that you don’t have to go that route.’”
Reflecting on how this trip changed him, Murray said, “I made a goal that when I became a Jew, I wanted to encourage Jews to take a hold of who they are and be a light to the nations, however that looked in their lives. I really believe that because I made a commitment to that, Hashem has created that mountaintop experience. When you live here, you’re on a different spiritual plane, and when you leave this plane it’s very hard. I understand that now. You think differently. When you leave here, you feel the drain.
“It’s almost scary because I can see a little of what Hashem’s plan is for me here and how easily he made it happen. In America, I would have to go through a lot of steps to even get a chance to speak with kids. Here it just fell into place. It all came together in a way I was not expecting.”
Murray agreed that it’s much easier for him to picture himself contributing to Israel than it was before he arrived in early December. He just opened up an aliya file and plans to officially make aliya whenever it’s the right time. In the meantime, he intends to come more often.
“You’re plugged in here. Supercharged. I can’t wait to come back for Passover to see who else I can help.”
The full version of Yosef Murray’s life story, including his conversion to Judaism, is told in wife Emunah Murray’s forthcoming book From Rose Bowl to Rashi. To be notified when the book is published, email