Sean Murphy is a jack of all trades. What else do you call a synagogue executive director who dabbles in photography, coffee, and writing? Learn about that and more as we find out about Sean in this week’s Who The Folk?!
How did you get to where you are now career-wise?
I converted to Judaism about 15 years ago and started working Talmud Torah of St. Paul and in that process, I wanted to be working at a Jewish workplace too absorb as much of the life cycle and the yearly life cycle as I could. A couple years after I started working at B’nai Emet Synagogue and a couple years later I became the executive director there. I was there for about five years before I started at Beth Jacob Synagogue.
What made you look into converting to Judaism?
I was married at the time to someone who was interested in converting. I have always been fascinated by various world religions. I wasn’t participating in any of them and for a long time, I had known there were only two that I would be interested in because they’re focused on living here and now and not focused on what happens after you die. Those are Judaism and Buddhism. They’re really much more community focused and how to live now.
I also heard you worked at a coffee shop. Tell me about that.
Yes, a long time ago. I ran a coffee shop back in Massachusetts for about four years.
So are you not from Minnesota?
No, originally from Massachusetts.
What made you want to come to Minnesota?
Same person I was married to before. But when we got divorced, which was not that long after we moved here, I had already found my Jewish community here so I decided to stay because I wanted that sense of community.
How long have you lived in Minnesota?
The reason I mentioned the coffee, I’ve heard you serve a cold brew?
Yes, at Beth Jacob, I’ve become known for that. It’s properly brewed cold-press coffee. I brew it for 24 to 36 hours and one of the benefits of having run a coffee shop is that I did this for a living. For me, I love coffee and want other people to have a good experience with it.
Wow, I would love free coffee.
We have it every Shabbat during the summertime!
What were the challenges involved in the conversion process?
Well, my name is certainly an interesting one. One of the questions I got asked a lot, “What kind of name is Sean Murphy for a Jew?” So I came up with all kinds of answers. “Well my mother is a nice Jewish girl but she meets a boy and falls in love. What do you do? His name is Murphy so she says, look my boy is Jewish. And he says, look you’re going to have an Irish name. So the compromise.” I get people stumbling over backward apologizing. It’s not true but you don’t know it’s not true. I try to make it a learning thing. Most people don’t know that the vast majority of Jewish names aren’t. They’re German, they’re Polish, they’re not Jewish.
What is the most rewarding part of working at a synagogue?
Getting to see the real moments of engagements people have with other people in their community. When people come in and have a wedding, when they get that meal delivered to them or visited in the hospital. Those are the moments where we take off the mask and stop worrying what people think about us and we actually engage as human beings. I had a young man this past Saturday who was working at the State Fair and he came into the synagogue really tired and said, “I just couldn’t do it today. I had to take the day off because I need to be in synagogue.” Three years ago, this kid was a snappy teenager who had no time for synagogue. He’s in college now and just needed the space that feels like home. He has a sense of belonging and a real sense of home.
Do you see yourself staying in this line of work?
Yeah, I have no plans to go anywhere now. I’m not foolish enough to think life is simple or predictable. I’m willing to be flexible. It’s not the only thing I do. I’m also a photographer.
Yeah, I just had a piece in the State Fair in the Fine Arts competition.
What subjects do you photograph?
I do a lot of different types of photography. But on my own, I tend to do landscapes and nature telephoto. So long distance, tight-in. That naturally lends itself to also doing sports so I’ve been on the field shooting with the Vikings a couple of times and high school football teams.
Favorite Jewish holiday?
Sukkot. First off, I work in a synagogue so I’m perpetually confronted with all of the various holidays. I like the harvest feel of it. I like the historical overtones. I like that it’s an agricultural holiday that we have clearly adopted.
Favorite Jewish food?
I’m going to be super specific here. Barry Golob’s challah. There’s lots of amazing food out there but if you’re talking a specific Jewish food, I’m a big bread person. I love bread and very few people make consistently good challah but he does.