The journey from a Catholic upbringing in Nicaragua to doing an aliyah at an East Bay synagogue in September was a long one. But Holvis Delgadillo relished the trip.
“That day was a dream come true, something I’ve been wanting a long time,” Delgadillo said.
On Sept. 24 at Temple Beth Hillel in Richmond, not only did Delgadillo officially complete his conversion by getting his Hebrew name — Moshe Ish Chayil — but it all happened during his daughter’s bat mitzvah.
After Rabbi Dean Kertesz gave him his Hebrew name, he “asked me to read from the Torah. I was so surprised when he told me I was bar mitzvah on that day, too. It was an emotional moment.”
“I sprung the bar mitzvah on Holvis as a surprise, and said a special blessing for him,” Kertesz said. “He has been living a Jewish life for many years. He established a Jewish home, he sends his kids to Jewish schools and he comes to services at the synagogue, so this all was just an affirmation of the reality.”
Delgadillo, 44, lives in Richmond with his wife, Marcia, and their children, Aviv, 15, and Soluna, 13. He is a case manager at Volunteers of America in Oakland, and Marcia, 49, has worked in the legal marketing field. Aviv, whose bar mitzvah was in January 2009, is in 10th grade at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco and Soluna is an eighth-grader at Tehiyah Day School in El Cerrito.
Delgadillo came to the Bay Area from the Pacific coastside town of Corinto, Nicaragua (population 17,000) in 1988 with his mother and brother and several cousins. Five years later, while working as a janitor in downtown San Francisco, he met Marcia Hoffman, a Jewish woman who grew up in San Francisco and Daly City. She worked for an accounting firm.
She remembers noticing him right away, and thinking he was “really cute.” On their first date, they went to a club that featured salsa music.
“A few months later, when Marcia introduced me to her family, everyone made me feel welcome, though her Grandma Ruthie did look me over from head to toe,” Delgadillo recalled with a laugh. Later, he told Marcia that the Catholic nuns and priests in his country had taught him that Jewish people were bad.
“They were wrong,” he said. “My experience with Marcia’s family changed me.”
Delgadillo eventually charmed Grandma Ruthie, who died in 1999. “When I tasted her chopped liver, I loved it,” Delgadillo said. “She gave me the recipe and told me how to make it.”
Eager to start a family, Holvis and Marcia married in February 1995 in a civil ceremony with their mothers as witnesses. City Hall was closed for construction at the time, so the ceremony took place in an office building.
Because they were planning a big Jewish wedding for several months later, the Delgadillos had intended to keep the first wedding a secret, but a news crew was filming the construction and the newly married couple ended up on CNN. Friends in Hong Kong and Hawaii called with their congratulations.
Before the second wedding, at Congregation Beth Israel Judea in San Francisco, Delgadillo promised to raise the couple’s children as Jewish.
Ten years later, Delgadillo became a U.S. citizen, and he has since earned a bachelor’s degree in integrative biology from U.C. Berkeley and a master’s degree in public health from Touro University in Vallejo.
Over the years, Delgadillo also learned a lot about Judaism.
He attended services, celebrated Jewish holidays, took part in lifecycle and Jewish day school events with his family and gathered with friends on Shabbat. He read books on Jewish religion and culture. And he asked many, many questions of his relatives and friends about their faith. Two years ago, Delgadillo knew the Hebrew prayers by heart.
“I wanted to convert for the longest time, but I didn’t,” Delgadillo said. “Then last December I heard a little girl, a friend’s daughter, talk about forgiveness, which is something that Jewish people know how to do. I had not known how, maybe because of my macho Latino culture. Listening to that little girl made me realize that I needed to convert.”
He contacted Kertesz at Beth Hillel, who considered a by-the-book conversion — including immersion in a mikvah — a formality, as Delgadillo had identified as Jewish for more than a decade.
But he did need to make it official, so he could take part in his daughter’s bat mitzvah.
“It was really important that my dad was able to convert when he did so he could do an aliyah on Sept. 24,” Soluna said. “That was really meaningful for me.”
Reflecting on that special day, Delgadillo said, “This was not the future I would have seen for myself years ago, but that day, looking at my wife, my children and my friends, I got chills. I remember thinking, ‘This is real.’ It was an emotional moment.”