For Leah Murphy, 26, nothing beats a pilot’s-eye view. But her core motivation for going into the cockpit stems from helping others in need.
The Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Hillel student packed her belongings and settled more than 2,500 miles away from her native Massachusetts to work toward becoming an air ambulance pilot. Murphy, who previously served as a member of Hillel International's Student Cabinet, will graduate from the Arizona-based campus this year with a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical science.
In between juggling her academic classes and flight training, Murphy had a wide-ranging conversation about her Jewish identity and career aspirations with Shana Medel, a communications associate at Hillel International. Below are highlights from their conversation.
Why did you enroll at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University?
“I was studying political science at the University of Connecticut when I decided to join the UConn Skydiving Club. From then on, I was bitten by the aviation bug. I absolutely loved being in the air. And I come from a family of firefighters, so I also got the bug for the first responder type life as well. I began thinking about becoming an air ambulance pilot, which led me to find a route where I could become a professional helicopter pilot. After taking some time off school, I found out that Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University had a helicopter program, and that’s what led me here.”
Did you grow up wanting to become a pilot?
“I was a freshman in high school when I heard about Capt. Jennifer Harris. She was the first Massachusetts woman to be killed in Iraq during the Iraq War. Her helicopter was shot down. I remember seeing that news story — just tragic. But I also remember that was the day I realized women can be pilots. I always thought aviation was cool, but I thought that as a woman, it was something I couldn’t do. Now, looking back, it seems silly. I think, ‘Oh, of course I can be a pilot.’ But female pilots are a minority in this profession.”
Tell me about your Jewish background.
“My mother is Jewish, and my father is Catholic. I was raised as a Reform Jew. I went to shul every Sunday and Wednesday for Hebrew school. After my bat mitzvah year, I continued to stay active in my synagogue until my senior year of high school. When I started at UConn, I got somewhat involved in Hillel by going to services and Shabbat dinner. That was a very comfortable, staple part of my college experience. When I transferred to Embry-Riddle, I expected the Hillel to be like the one at UConn, meaning I could be passive in my Judaism. I just had to show up and everything would be done for me. It turned out that wasn’t the case. There were a group of students saying ‘We’re all Jewish but we don’t do anything. We don’t have anything provided.’ That made me to realize if I wanted to still be Jewish and actively participate, I needed to step up and get things going. That actually made me become more active than I was when it was easily provided to me. The Jewish community at Embry-Riddle is very homey and tight-knight because there’s such a small group of us.”
In a previous article profiling you, published by Embry-Riddle, you said: “I want to be that person who is there for the worst day of people’s lives, to help contribute to making it better.” Can you expand on that quote? Why do you want to be there?
“I’ve had really bad days before. But there were people who were there to help make it better. It’s genuinely life changing. I’ve heard stories about people who didn’t have someone there for them, and it’s heartbreaking to know that. I don’t want anyone to be in that situation. My father is the deputy fire chief of Cambridge, Massachusetts. In his line of work, he sees tragedy every day. He’s going in there to help, to make it better. And it’s something I’ve admired and something I want to do.”
Has your Jewish identity and values influenced your career aspirations?
“Absolutely. When I think about what my Jewish identity means to me, I think of my maternal grandparents, who fled Germany because of the Holocaust. I remember seeing this quote on the wall when I was in Hebrew school:
'First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.'
And I remember just thinking, ‘Wow.’ I was in third grade, so I didn’t know what a Socialist or a Trade Unionist was. But the part about a Jew — that resonated with me. I knew that I needed to speak up and be there for people, which made me want to serve others by becoming a first responder. My grandparents always encouraged service to others and being a good person because being a good person relates to being a good Jew.”
Describe your experience attending Embry-Riddle.
“It’s almost like I’m going to two schools. I have my flight school and my academic school. I’m a full-time student taking 15 credits per semester and then on top of that, I’m dedicating at least four hours a day toward my flight school. I completed my private pilot’s certificate during my first semester. I’m a real pilot. I can rent a helicopter and take people flying. But it was expensive, so I had to take off a semester. That really hurt me because I moved all the way across the country to fly. The one thing I wanted to do was become a pilot. And then that was the one thing I wasn’t doing — I wasn’t flying. That led me to take on two part-time jobs so that way I could use my time efficiently, make money and afford to fly. The following semester, I was able to get my instrument rating, which means I know how to safely manipulate the aircraft when flying in the clouds. where you learn to fly in the clouds. This past semester, I became a commercial pilot. There’s really nothing I want to do more than fly.”
You mentioned that you used to skydive while at the University of Connecticut. Is that an activity you still do?
“I was president of the Embry-Riddle skydiving team up until this past month. It’s definitely exhilarating. A lot of people like skydiving because of the risk, but for me it’s not so much risk based as it is skill based. I appreciate that it’s an activity that requires practice and the manipulation of controls. I was at the University of Connecticut when I took that first jump, and I absolutely fell in love with it. And when I found out there was competitive skydiving, that was the real appeal because it turned a fun activity into something you could master and really dedicate time to.”
What inspired you to become a member of Hillel International’s Student Cabinet? What did you take away from your experience?
“Coming to Embry-Riddle and seeing the struggles of my Hillel made me want to make a connection with Hillel International to find out what resources I could bring back to campus. And it also made me realize that Embry-Riddle can’t be the only small Hillel that’s in need of resources. That’s why I applied to become a member of the cabinet. During my year on the cabinet, there were 16 other students who served. They came from all around the world — the U.S., South America, Israel, Russia. I realized that Hillels differ from place to place. And that helped me apply what I learned back on campus. Even though we had so many varying opinions, our Jewish identities always helped us find a common ground. It was Judaism that brought us together in the first place.”
What’s next for you?
“I want to become an air ambulance pilot. That’s the dream. But you have to meet the required number of hours in the air if you want a career in aviation. Right now, I’m working to become a certified flight instructor. Once I complete that and have about 1,000 hours of flight time in the air, I’m hoping to give guided helicopter tours at the Grand Canyon. And once I get about 3,000 hours of flight time, then I can apply for air ambulance jobs.”