It was the winter of 2008, and Byron Murray was on a journey.

The biological son of a teenage Jewish mother and non-Jewish father, Murray was adopted as a newborn baby and raised nominally Conservative in rural Connecticut by warm and loving adoptive parents, themselves a Jewish mother and non-Jewish father. While attending the University of Vermont (UVM) he had begun delving into his Jewish roots and faith. He stayed in Burlington after his graduation, worked in Israel advocacy and attended synagogue regularly, if not religiously, at Chabad-Lubavitch of Vermont.

“I was plugged into Jewish life,” he says, noting that he had spent a summer studying at Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem. “But it was part of a long, slow process.”

Then came the Nov. 26, 2008 terror attack in Mumbai. Throughout the next nearly 48 hours, Pakistani terrorists murdered 164 innocent men, women and children in hotels, cafes and the streets of India’s business capital. Targeted with a special vengeance were Rabbi Gabi and Rivky Holtzberg, directors of Chabad of Mumbai, and their four Jewish guests, who were all taken hostage in the first moments of the coordinated attacks. Despite the Holtzbergs’ young son, Moshe, being saved, the rabbi, rebbetzin and their guests were all brutally murdered. The news hit the Jewish world particularly hard, uniting people in an extended moment of communal grief.

“It was a jarring experience,” Murray tells “It was shocking that something like this could happen, and I just remember this crushing sadness, a feeling of despair.”

Days later, Chabad of Vermont held a community-wide memorial event, and Murray was asked to serve as emcee. The room was packed. Tearful psalms were recited, and Murray recalls needing to pause to compose himself a number of times that evening.

Later, he had a conversation with Rabbi Zalman Wilhelm, director of Chabad at UVM. What could he do, Murray wanted to know, in this time of darkness? Wilhelm suggested donning tefillin daily. Murray, who owned a pair that he put on from time to time, agreed.

For Murray, the moment he took upon himself daily tefillin was an important milestone on a long personal and spiritual journey.

Ten years later, now known as Rabbi Binyamin Murray, he and his wife, Dr. Davida Murray, co-direct Middlebury Chabad, serving Jewish students and faculty at Vermont’s prestigious Middlebury College and surrounding area.

Rabbi Binayamin Murray
Rabbi Binayamin Murray

‘What Is Adopted?’

Murray’s story begins in 1984, when a Jewish teenager gave birth to a baby boy and made the difficult decision to give him a new home through adoption. Her one request was that her Jewish son be raised Jewish. Through the Catholic Home Bureau, he was placed with John and Susan Murray, who named their new son Byron Thomas, giving him the Hebrew name Binyamin.

Although as a child his parents discussed adoption with him and read him age-appropriate books on the topic, Murray didn’t quite understand the concept until he was teased about it in the schoolyard by a fellow 6-year-old. That day he came home—to a poultry farm in Lebanon, Conn.—got a snack and went to play outside. When he came back in, his mother asked him how his day was. “It was OK,” he responded.

She sensed something was wrong. “What happened?”

“Ryan told everyone I was adopted,” he told her. “What is adopted?”

To this day Murray remembers, as he wrote in an essay a few years ago, “the look that came over her heavenly face.”

In words that he could understand, Murray’s mom explained how she and his father had wanted children but were physically unable to have them, and so chose to adopt. How his biological mother loved him very much and wanted the best for him, and how the day they got the call from the adoption agency was the happiest day of their lives.

Murray describes his childhood as a happy and loving one, growing up together with his brother, Andrew, on their grandparents’ farm surrounded by chickens and the outdoors. As his parents had promised, he was raised Jewish, given a more-or-less typical American Jewish education. They attended a Conservative synagogue where he had his bar mitzvah ceremony, had a regular family Passover seder and even hid all their bread in a closet for the duration of the holiday.

When he went to a Conservative overnight camp, tefillin were on the packing list, so his mother pulled out his grandfather’s pair and placed it in his luggage.

“I didn’t know how to put them on,” he recalls, so he watched others doing it in camp and tried following along. “I was a big kid already, so the strap only reached halfway down my arm.”

Murray was a good athlete, earning a starting position on his high school’s varsity soccer team, with some of the season’s biggest games played on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. When his mother objected to his taking part in those, he responded that it wasn’t like they went to synagogue all day. They would typically go for an hour or so and stay home during the rest of it. Why shouldn’t he play?

Once at UVM, he tried to take part in some Jewish activities but didn’t find it very meaningful. One attempt at attending Rosh Hashanah services ended when he walked in and saw those gathered doing yoga.

It was a class on Holocaust literature with philosophy professor Richard Sugarman that initially piqued Murray’s interest in Judaism. As part of the readings, they covered some of the dramatic and heart-wrenching Holocaust-era halachic responsa authored by Kovno ghetto survivor Rabbi Ephraim Oshry.

“That book, Responsa From the Holocaust, changed my perspective,” says Murray. “I saw that there was more to Judaism, an intellectual depth I hadn’t recognized before.”

“We’re dressed like Orthodox Jews, I’m half West African, and my children are mixed race,” says Murray, “so we definitely stick out.”
“We’re dressed like Orthodox Jews, I’m half West African, and my children are mixed race,” says Murray, “so we definitely stick out.”

The Search

Murray started going to the Sugarman home for Shabbat dinner, and after a few months decided to check out the Chabad House across the street from UVM’s campus. He began attending regularly. At the same time, a few of his friends were exploring their Judaism as well, with one even taking time off from college to go to yeshivah and another heading off to Israel. Murray, however, was going at his own pace.

After college he stayed in Burlington, working at the Israel Advocacy Center of Vermont and becoming increasingly involved in Jewish life in Burlington, including with Hillel International. It was then that, with Wilhelm’s encouragement and the trauma of Mumbai on his mind, he began donning tefillin every day. That was also when he made the decision that he wanted to marry Jewish and came to a stumbling point: Was he, in fact, Jewish according to Jewish law? He had no way of proving that, and no way of tracing his birth mother either.

In the fall of 2009, after three years of advocacy in Vermont, Murray earned an Israel Government Fellowship (IGF) and went to Israel to spend a year working on Shimon Peres’ Israeli Presidential Conference. In Israel, he met Rabbi Fishel Jacobs, himself a UVM alumn who became religious after college, and a noted halachic scholar, as well a former chaplain in Israel’s prison system who lives in the village of Kfar Chabad.

“I started studying Tanya with Fish,” says Murray, calling Jacobs by his nickname, “and was becoming more connected with Chabad.”

With Jacobs’ encouragement, Murray, who began going by Binyamin in Israel, started searching for his birth mother, but kept hitting a brick wall. The adoption agency couldn’t help, nor could the mohel who had circumcised him as a baby. Then, by Divine providence, Murray’s mother suddenly remembered that when Binyamin was born the state had accidentally sent her his initial birth certificate, which included his birth name. It was a small clue, but a start.

Tracing someone just using a last name can be difficult, and with Jacobs’ help Murray approached a beit din, Jewish court of law, in Bnei Brak, hoping that based on the evidence it could pronounce Murray as Jewish. On the appointed day, they showed up in the rabbinical courtroom. Jacobs had translated Murray’s myriad documents into Hebrew for him and presented his case. The head of the beit din reviewed the documents and then said, in English: “How hard could it be to find someone in America?”

“He didn’t want to convert me because he said I am Jewish already, and the truth is I didn’t want that either,” says Murray. But the rabbi also didn’t want to pronounce him as Jewish based solely on the other evidence and testimony, leaving Murray, who “just wanted to get it done,” in a bind.

For Murray, the moment he started wrapping daily tefillin served as an important milestone on a personal and spiritual journey.
For Murray, the moment he started wrapping daily tefillin served as an important milestone on a personal and spiritual journey.


With his issue still unresolved, Murray returned to America at the end of the year. After some time in Vermont, he moved to Chicago to teach at a Jewish Montessori school there. He also began dating for marriage, but things came to a halt when his uncertain status arose.

Towards the end of 2012, he went home to Connecticut for Thanksgiving. Driving down the Merritt Parkway, he suddenly pulled to the side and Googled his birth last name with an age restriction of over 65. Three numbers came up, and he called each one, but all three seemed to be dead ends. The last person he tried called him back, and when they finally connected, he told the woman on the other end that his name was Byron Murray and he was doing genealogical research. Did she know someone with his birth name?

“Maybe you should sit down; I have a lot to share with you,” the woman told him.

She was, she explained, his step-grandmother. She assured Murray that he was Jewish and then asked Murray if it was alright with him for her to share his number with his birth mother, Julia.

Back in Chicago about a month later, Murray was hosting a Chassidic gathering—a farbrengen marking the 19th of Kislev, the festival of liberation from Czarist prison of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of the Chabad movement—when he received a voice message on his cell phone:

“When you love something and give it up, and it comes back to you, it is truly a blessing.” It was Julia.

Murray called her back, and they spoke for hours. Later, she shared all of the family documents he needed to prove he was Jewish, and slowly, they began to reconnect.

‘Mo-Town’ to Middlebury

After some time teaching in Chicago, Murray headed for the Rabbinical College of America’s Yeshivas Tiferes Bachurim in Morristown, N.J., a yeshivah geared primarily for those from a more secular background.

“Someone told me the best year of his life was in ‘Mo-town,’ ” says Murray, who before that had not spent more than a few weeks in intensive Jewish study. For Murray, the experience was a formative one. In 2014, he met and married his wife, Dr. Davida Linzer, and continued his Jewish studies at the kollel institute for young married men in Morristown. For a number of years, the active outdoorsman also directed the Pioneers Camp, a Jewish survival camp in Vermont.

In June of 2017, the Murrays moved to Middlebury, Vt., to found the sparsely populated area’s first Chabad center.

“We live adjacent to campus, but the closest Jewish presence is two-and-a-half hours away,” he says “so we’re working with Jews for miles around us.”

The area is beautiful and rural, and the Jews living there are spread throughout the region. Despite Middlebury’s culture of diversity, it is also homogeneously white.

 Dr. Davida Murray and Rabbi Binyamin Murray, co-directors of Middlebury Chabad, serve Jewish students and faculty at Middlebury College and the surrounding area.
Dr. Davida Murray and Rabbi Binyamin Murray, co-directors of Middlebury Chabad, serve Jewish students and faculty at Middlebury College and the surrounding area.

“We’re dressed like Orthodox Jews, I’m half West African, and my children are mixed race,” he says, “so we definitely stick out.”

While they have their work cut out for them, they’re taking it step by step. “We’re working with one student at a time, one conversation at a time,” says the rabbi, who spoke by phone from Middlebury as he helped his wife prepare their upcoming Friday-night Shabbat meal.

Looking back to that winter night in 2008 when he decided he would put on tefillin every day, Murray sees it as a crucial step on the road to where he is today.

“I wasn’t really sure where I was heading at the time,” he says. “There were days when I wasn’t in the mood, but I kept doing it because I had made this promise, so to speak, in the Holtzbergs’ memory. That was meaningful to me.”

He has, in the years since, learned more about the Holtzbergs’ lives and the work they did in India. Rural Vermont might not be Mumbai, but for the Murrays, far from family and community, it is not as dissimilar as one might think either.

“We’re inspired by Gabi and Rivky, and what they built in Mumbai,” he says. “That’s what we’re trying to do here.”