The journey of NFL legend Yosef (Calvin) Murray and his wife Emunah to Judaism and Israel is an inspiration for those seeking a spiritual life.
By Tsivya Fox-Dobuler
All-star Rose Bowl NFL running back Yosef (Calvin) Murray and his wife Emunah (Jeri) inspire all who meet them. The couple, who converted to Judaism, now live most of the year in Israel.
“Israel is a wonderful place filled with beautiful people who love each other,” Yosef told United with Israel (UWI) in a phone conversation on Sunday. “I am proud to be a citizen and am so grateful that Hashem (God) blessed me to be part of the Jewish people and this country.”
The couple met nearly three decades ago when Calvin was tutoring Jeri’s children. They married in 1992. Together, they have followed a fascinating spiritual path.
They were both born Christian and joined an evangelical church 12 years after they wed. They eventually found their way to Orthodox Judaism.
“We were youth pastors at a Messianic church but got terminated because we were becoming ‘too Jewish.’” Yosef said. “We continued studying Judaism at home, which eventually led us to the local Chabad.”
The NFL player was not a complete stranger to Judaism, having been raised in Woodbine, New Jersey, a predominantly Orthodox Jewish town. “At a young age I started asking questions to my pastor about the differences in religious observance between Jews and non-Jews from what I was seeing from my friends,” he said. “I was given poor explanations that ultimately led me to seek the truth.”
The couple converted in 2013 in Detroit. They remarried according to Jewish law and are grateful to their communities in both the US and Israel for embracing and nurturing them throughout their transformation.
“After our conversion, Rabbi Areyah Kaltmann, who officiated, said, ‘Mazel tov, you just scored a touchdown win for the Jewish people.’” Yosef shared.
Joseph the Dreamer
When converting to Judaism, a person chooses a Hebrew name with which he or she can connect. “Just like the biblical Joseph (Yosef), I’ve always been a dreamer. That’s why I chose that name,” Yosef explained. “When I was considering converting to Orthodox Judaism, my late mother came to me in a dream and said, ‘Finish where you’re going.’ I took that as a good sign.”
Last year, he went to the grave of Joseph in Nablus (Shechem). “For me, that was coming full circle.”
According to rabbinical literature, when a Jewish person arrives in Israel, his or her soul is affected. “I experienced that. I experience miracles wherever I go. I get and give encouragement all the time. In Israel, there are always opportunities to do mitzvot [good deeds]. You don’t see that as much outside of the Land.”
Due to an injury, Yosef left professional football. However, he credits the sport with preparing him for an Orthodox Jewish lifestyle.
“To master football, one must practice the same moves again and again and again,” he told UWI. “It takes a lot of discipline and can be torture but then you succeed. Learning Torah, doing mitzvot and praying three times a day require constant repetition like my past training.”
Since leaving the NFL, he has counseled and inspired foster children. He also regularly speaks to both adults and children about Torah, Judaism, Israel, his relationship with God and the life experiences that brought him to where he is today.
“I use athletic terminology when I speak with people so they can relate to me and what is going on in the world today in a practical way,” he said. “In professional sports, one strives to perfect themselves which is also the goal of Judaism.”
When UWI asked how Yosef’s NFL friends reacted to his becoming Jewish, he laughed.
“Well, some call me ‘Sammy’ as in Sammy Davis Jr.,” he said. “I often need to leave alumni events early if they are on Friday in order to get home in time for Shabbat. They also don’t understand why I can no longer eat the food at events, because it isn’t kosher. But I feel it is a privilege to be a Jew and live in Israel.”
‘I Am Israeli Now’
Though Emunah’s connection to Israel was immediate, Yosef’s journey took longer.
“While others slept between locations, I was taken over with emotions, the beauty of the Land and its holiness,” she said, recalling her first tour to the country in 2006. “I didn’t want to miss one thing that Israel had to offer,” she said. “I immediately felt connected, but, as a non-Jew I was an outsider.”
In 2012, during their challenging process of converting, which included moving from a community they loved in order to live near their synagogue, Yosef joined his wife on her fourth visit to the Holy Land.
With time, Yosef, too, was hooked. “I am Israeli now,” he said. “I am part of history here. This is my destiny.”
Getting his Israeli citizenship “completely rewired his brain,” bringing him to “huge emotional, spiritual and psychological changes.” he told UWI.
“We discussed living in Israel after we retire but I didn’t want to wait so many years to get here,” Emunah said.
The couple did a split Aliyah. Emunah moved to Israel in 2016 and Yosef would visit regularly. On a visit for the holiday of Sukkot, the couple met at the bus station for the first time since she had moved. It was clear that she was thriving.
“When we got married, I promised God I’d do everything I could to make her the happiest woman in the world,” Yosef told UWI. “When I saw Emunah she was glowing. It was clear to me that Israel made her happy. She had so much support from the community, I knew there was nothing to worry about.”
They live nine months a year in Ma’aleh Adumin with a view of the Judean mountains. During the summer, they visit their six children and three grandchildren, all non-Jews, in the US.
‘I Want to Be a Light to All’
Yosef’s mission now is to be a light to those around him. “I love people and I love the Jewish people. I want to be a light to all… I am proud to say I am a convert because my past brought me to who I am today.
“If someone told us 20 years ago that we’d be Orthodox Jews living in Israel, I wouldn’t have believed them. We pray that our words and deeds give joy to Hashem and that we continue to merit to live in Israel. We are very conscience that it is a privilege to walk in the Land of Israel. We think of all the things Hashem did for us to bring us to Judaism and Israel. We are living in the land of the Bible, and it’s been an amazing journey to get here. We feel that in Israel we are living out our destiny. Our hearts overflow with gratitude.”