Under His wings

For Shlomo and Ruth Brunell, the road to Judaism led from Finland to Jerusalem – and they’re here to stay.

finland 521 (photo credit: courtesy)
finland 521
(photo credit: courtesy)
Shlomo and Ruth were called Ole and Runa in their former lives. They lived in neighboring villages in a staunchly Lutheran, predominantly Swedish-speaking part of western Finland.
It was natural for them to meet while on tour with church youth groups, as Shlomo was in the brass band and Ruth was in the choir. By age 20 they were already engaged.
After Shlomo earned an MA in theology at age 25, he worked as a minister in the Lutheran Church for 12 years. For five of those pleasant and secure years, he served in Brisbane, Australia, where Ruth’s sister lived. Besides studying design, Ruth played the church organ and helped organize community events. During this calm phase of their lives, Shlomo gradually became plagued with doubts about Christian dogma. Ruth, in turn, came to the same conclusions as her husband. The conflict came to a head soon after Shlomo’s return to Finland in 1990. When he handed his resignation to the local bishop and spoke his mind before the Church council, retribution was swift. The bishop rose in anger, exclaiming dramatically, “According to Martin Luther, you are a heretic. There is the door, I ask you to leave!” The Brunells’ lives changed abruptly.
They were left socially isolated and in a spiritual vacuum. Their economic situation was also precarious. Shlomo’s theology degree was of no help to him. However, his time in the church had empowered him as an administrator, community leader and public speaker. After a difficult period of unemployment, the family that now numbered six people moved to Ruth’s former hometown, Kronoby, a five-hour drive from Helsinki. There Shlomo taught children and adults and later had a fulfilling job directing an adult education program.
Their interest in Judaism came about gradually. “From inside that very Christian community with not one single Jew, we started our long and bumpy road towards Judaism,” Ruth says. “In the summer of 1996 our whole family of six converted to Judaism in Helsinki. On November 18 that same year, we made aliya. Since then we have celebrated our aliya date every year.
We celebrate the privilege of being Jewish and being able to come to the Land.”
Ra’anana’s absorption center was the first destination for the couple and their four blond daughters. “We soon found what a wonderful place Ra’anana is. So many wonderful people and communities. We stayed for about 10 years.” It was not an easy time, though, as the whole family had to redo their conversions. Besides lecturing quite often, Shlomo also published his autobiographical book, Strangers No More.
After that they tried country life for a while in Kfar Yavetz, 20 minutes away from Ra’anana. “We loved it, but Jerusalem was calling. Now we live within walking distance of the Old City and enjoy long walks in our holy surroundings.”
As for coping with the lack of financial security, “That is a very good question,” Shlomo says. “Looking back, the only thing we see is there was no other way than to have a lot of emuna – total trust in Hashem [God] that he will provide in feeding us, clothing us and giving us a place to live. We had no promise that life in Israel would be easy, but we came here, not to try it out, but no matter the situation, this is our home now. We came ‘to seek refuge under His wings.’ That is what we have had, and we feel safe and secure walking the Land. Hashem is providing and protecting all of us, all of Am Yisrael [the Jewish People]. Look at the world around us.
Our enemies are fighting each other. Israel is protected from above.”
Today Shlomo manages a small apartment hotel in Nahlaot, Jerusalem, while Ruth is a real estate agent.
For the last year, the Brunells have organized singles’ events such as Shabbat dinners and barbecues – which have been a marked social success – at their rented apartment in Talbieh. They initiated this project, called The Jerusalem Soul Garden, after they became aware of the numerous English-speaking religious singles in town.
“We also heard with sorrow that more and more women in their late 30s are choosing to become single mothers – not finding a husband to start a family with.
We started to open our home to regular events for these singles, aged over 30. We started inside our small apartment, which soon became too crowded, so we moved outside in the garden. The garden is becoming too small as well. The response has been overwhelming. Up till now we have financed the Soul Garden ourselves, with about 40 people attending every time. We are now looking for sponsors to help cover the costs so we can cope with the growing demand.”
The Brunells are now arranging a weekly learning program in their home on the Ba’al Shem Tov and his teachings. They hope to stay in Jerusalem. “Where do you go after Jerusalem? No better place in the world!” A final tip for new immigrants: “Don’t compare anything with ‘back home,’ how much better everything is over there.
Those who compare and complain all the time will most likely end up going back.
We should say only good things about Israel, not a single hint of bad.”