Crazy' Ole Becomes an Oleh

A former Finnish pastor recounts his family's intriguing journey to Judaism - and Israel

Tamar Hausman
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Tamar Hausman

Ole Brunell used to lead a congregation at a Lutheran church in Finland. Today, Brunell - who goes by the name "Shlomo" - davens at the Kinor David synagogue, a Shlomo Carlebach-style congregation, in Ra'anana.

"With a name like `Ole,' perhaps I was destined to become an oleh," jokes Brunell, who related his family's story this week in Jerusalem before a packed audience at an evening sponsored by Emunah, the religious-Zionist women's organization.

"Of our own free will, we ended up on the battle scene," he explained, adding, "A neighbor in Ra'anana calls us `certifiably crazy.'"

Before immigrating to Israel five years ago, the Brunells had a nice life in Finland: He had his pulpit; his wife, Runa - now Ruth - was a church organist; they were financially stable; and they lived in a close-knit community. But over the last decade, Ole chose to convert, change his profession, leave his homeland for a far different one, and take on an entirely new culture, language and circle of friends. And his wife and four daughters did all that with him.

During a stint serving the small Finnish community in Australia, Brunell's study of the Bible grew deeper, and he began experiencing nagging feelings about Christianity. "The Trinity was problematic for me, and Sunday, too," he recalled, adding that he began to understand that Saturday was, according to the Bible, the true day of rest: "I searched for the God I knew from the Bible. But he seemed to be so hidden. Was he manipulated in the faith that gave me my livelihood for 12 years?"

After a dream in which he nearly suffocated to death while speaking from his pulpit - a dream which could have come true "spiritually, if I didn't take action" - Brunell began to preach from the floor. He believed that what he was seeing in the words of the Bible was, in fact, "nothing unique," and that he was, in fact, simply finding his way to Judaism. Being Jewish, he told his audience, is a uniqueness, "a gift."

Twice converted

The family returned to Finland, where Brunell took up his pulpit again - but with the intention of leaving. He revealed to the bishop who supervised him that he had doubts about Christianity and inclinations toward Judaism, which he now saw as the "true religion." The bishop suggested that he keep quiet and keep his job. That left Brunell even more determined than before to leave his pulpit - and his religion.

"I couldn't fight the church nor transform it, but I could leave," he explained, recalling that he didn't mince words as he addressed members of his congregation for the last time, informing them of his impending departure. Among his comments, he said that he felt that Christianity tried to imitate elements of Judaism while, at the same time, opposing it. He remembered the uncomfortable silence that overtook the room, and how the bishop, listening in, didn't interrupt him, but pointed to the door as a signal for Brunell to leave after he finished speaking.

The ensuing period, prior to immigrating to Israel, wasn't easy for the family. Brunell was unemployed for a while, eventually getting a job as a school headmaster: "The only subject I was not allowed to teach was religion, but it was the only subject I was qualified to teach," he noted.

Meanwhile, Runa was experiencing the same religious metamorphosis, which Brunell calls "a miracle." Their girls' acceptance of Judaism took a little longer, but it happened smoothly. The family was converted by the chief rabbi of Helsinki, who also gave them their Hebrew names. The family also became vegetarians; the closest kosher store to their home in western Finland was in Helsinki, 500 kilometers away.

After the conversion, which took over a year, they moved to Israel - but the process they had undertaken was not accepted, and they had to go through it all over again. Today Shlomo Brunell works for a furniture company; Ruth is a vegetarian cook. They are Orthodox - "We went all the way," he explained. Their eldest daughter married another convert, and another daughter is in the army. Ruth and Shlomo haven't been back to Finland since they left; they say they have little contact with friends and family there, many of whom were hurt or angered by their conversion.

The couple says they feel accepted as converts - and they do clearly stand out in their surroundings, with their blond hair and other Scandinavian features - and they love their largely-English-speaking community.

How do they feel now, with Israel in the depths of a political crisis?

"Especially now," Brunell said, "we have a feeling of belonging - that we need to be here, together with other Jews."



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