Each Jewish family has its own story. Every Jewish family has its own dynamics, its own history, its own assumptions. Some families are born into Jewishness and some choose it; the broad outlines might be similar, but the details always are different.
The story of Javier Delgado and Anlly Marin-Delgado of Maywood is unusual — and it is unusually beautiful.
Neither was born Jewish, but now, the parents of two preteen boys and now of newborn twins, they are married, and the twins were born as Jews. They’re all part of the community at Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood, which has embraced them, and that they have embraced in return.
Mr. Delgado grew up in Washington Heights. He’s got a restless intellect, and he can trace his search for meaning at least as far as high school. He transferred from his local public high school in northern Manhattan to a Catholic private school, Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx. “I wanted to go somewhere where I felt that I was learning,” he said.
“I was raised Catholic, but I wasn’t so religious,” he continued, but he wanted to be. “There were a lot of religion classes in high school.” He wanted to learn, but soon he realized that his questions weren’t welcomed. “Once I asked, ‘How come it says in the Ten Commandments, Do not worship any god but me, but I see idols, a lot of people in my church or in my family kissing statues, and I hear whole prayers, almost a whole service, praising someone like Mary, but with no mention of God?’ At that point, the teacher had no solid answer for me.”
He kept asking; his teachers did not find that endearing, but “faith was a very important factor in my life,” he said. “I have always felt that God has been with me.”
So what should he do? “I started researching and learning on my own,” Mr. Delgado said. “I could google anything! And I started to learn about different religions and what they believe in, and I learned that Judaism is where Christianity came from.”
He graduated from Hayes and went to City College, majoring in public relations. He started working in a physical therapy office, and he started meeting Jews. One of them, Zack Niv of Livingston, was instrumental in introducing him to Judaism; Mr. Delgado and Mr. Niv are so close that Mr. Niv was sandek for one of the twins at the bris.
“I would ask Zack questions about Judaism,” he said, and the answers would make more sense to him than the ones he’d heard from his Catholic background. “I am a very simple person,” he said. That’s not so obvious; what is clear is that his thinking is straightforward and analytic; he doesn’t want answers cluttered with metaphoric bells and incense. He wants them straight. And, he said, “I want to be able to explain things to my oldest son — why we are doing what we are doing — and to be able to answer his questions when he asks them.”
Mr. Delgado is ambitious and entrepreneurial, he owns a medical practice management company headquartered in New York. It’s called Breaking Bread Billing; the “bread” in the name refers to money, but the concept of “breaking bread” also alludes to community, and to ritual. That’s not accidental, Mr. Delgado said. “It puts everything together.”
After he founded his company, he met “the most amazing woman in the world, who was thinking in ways very similar to the way I was, and that made things a lot easier for me, and a lot more clear. I had met someone who I could really share those thoughts with.”
That woman was Anlly Marin; the way he met her was when she applied for a job with him. She was a medical assistant and now she is finishing her nursing degree. “I hired her!” Mr. Delgado said.
Ms. Marin-Delgado was born in Colombia. “My mother went to the United States, and she left me with a woman who was Christian,” she said. (When she says “Christian,” Ms. Marin-Delgado means “Protestant,” she clarified.) So from the time she was 4 years old, when her mother left, she was brought up Protestant, “and then one day, when I was 8, she came out of nowhere and said, ‘Let’s go.’ So we went to New York.
“And when we got here, all of a sudden I was Catholic again. It was so confusing to me — but I was going along with what my mother wanted to do.”
She started school in New York in fourth grade. “I was lost,” she said. “Of course I didn’t know any English. Nobody had warned me about what to expect.” She spent most of her teens living in Queens with her mother.
Soon, Ms. Marin-Delgado’s family was in New York, and they all were practicing Catholics. “I kind of didn’t connect with it very much,” she said. “I always believed in God. I always had faith. I always knew that God was with me. But the Catholic part never did it for me.”
So when she met Mr. Delgado, “I felt a connection with him from the beginning,” she said. “I thought my God, he is so cool.
“And I knew that I had always felt out of place with my religion. I wanted to find a foundation. I wanted to find something that made me feel at home.
“Javier and I talked about it a lot,” she continued. “He expressed his feelings, and I expressed mine. I knew something about Judaism, because I have an uncle who is not Jewish but lives in Brooklyn and was raised with the Jewish community. And Javier and I shared some Torah, and I said that I connect with this. I connect with this a lot.
“And then we decided that we wanted to raise a family together, and have a foundation so that our kids weren’t confused, the way we were. We want something solid. If they have questions, we want to be able to say that we have the answer. We decided that we want this not only for us, but for our family. We want our family to be solid. We want them to have that platform that they can fall back on.”
They moved to Maywood together, forming a family with the two sons Mr. Delgado brought with him, and now they share.
And they started going to the class that the United Synagogue of Hoboken’s Rabbi Robert Scheinberg teaches; the class, Introduction to Judaism, is the Rabbinical Assembly’s curriculum that can lead toward conversion. The RA is a Conservative movement body; they chose that movement, Mr. Delgado and Ms. Marin-Delgado say, both because the Jews they know best belong to it and because its ideology, the specific way it balances tradition and change, makes sense to them. They feel they belong there.
But they didn’t belong in Hoboken, at least not for classes. It’s too far from Maywood, and there is no parking there. Rabbi Scheinberg, recognizing the logistical problems the couple was facing, suggested that they continue their studies in Ridgewood. Classes there are taught by Temple Israel’s Rabbi David J. Fine, who is the president of the New Jersey Rabbinical Assembly.
It had taken the couple many years of study, discussion, and soul-searching to decide that they wanted to become Jewish, but once they began the process, it went quickly.
Anlly was pregnant, and they wanted the babies born Jewish. And they were.
“It was all because of Rabbi Fine,” Mr. Delgado said. He taught them, he took them to the beit din — the conversion court — and then to the mikvah.
“Once I determined that they were sincere, it became important to do it quickly,” Rabbi Fine said. “Whenever I have a conversion candidate who is visibly pregnant, I want to do it sooner rather than later, because it is in the babies’ interest to be born to a Jewish mother.”
But there was some other business to take care of first. Mr. Delgado had not been circumcised, so he had to be. That’s not easy; he had to recover from the brit milah before they could go ahead with the rest of the conversion.
His sons, Sebastian, 12, and Simon, 7, had been circumcised, so they did not have to go through the full medical procedure, but they did have to undergo a hatafat dam brit, the ritual that involves pricking a would-be convert’s circumcised penis to elicit the drop of blood that makes the long-ago medical circumcision into a halachichally acceptable one. “I did it for them,” Ms. Marin-Delgado said matter-of-factly. She used a lance that diabetics use to check their blood sugar.
Wait. You did what? “I did it myself,” she said. She has the medical training and she knows her sons. “Rabbi Fine said that it was okay for me to do it,” she said. “I did it with witnesses.” “They were very willing,” their father said. “And they were very brave.”
“It was very nerve-wracking,” their mother said.
Rabbi Fine remembers how extraordinary that day was; there was a simcha going on in another part of the building, and then, in a secluded room, the hatafat dam brit. Rabbi Fine, who also earned a Ph.D. in modern European history, teaches Jewish law at Abraham Geiger College, a rabbinical seminary at the University of Potsdam in Germany.
“One of my interns from Geiger was here,” Rabbi Fine said. “His name is David Maxa, and he will be ordained in June in Berlin. He had just arrived that morning. I picked him up at the airport, a direct flight from Prague, and then we had some barbecue, and we went downstairs for the hatafat.
“I wrote in his evaluation that he got over jet lag quickly…”
Once everyone was healed, one day in September, they all went to the beit din and mikvah in Westchester County. “I went in with Simon, his little one,” Anlly said. Rabbi Fine’s wife, Alla Fine, “was the mikvah lady for her,” Rabbi Fine said. “And I went in, and Sebastian went in himself,” Mr. Delgado said. “We all did it.”
How did it feel?
“We talked about it afterward,” Ms. Marin-Delgado said. “We all felt reborn. It was a fresh start. We were blank and starting again. This is our family. This is what we are building. This is what we will leave behind.
“It felt very very good,” Mr. Delgado said.
“I had an even stronger feeling than I thought I would have,” Ms. Marin-Delgado said. “I teared up. I was so happy.”
“And my 12-year-old, Sebastian, expressed similar feelings,” Mr. Delgado added. “He said, ‘I feel so happy.’ And from him, happy is a very strong word. If he said he was happy, that means he was really happy.”
On the Shabbat right after the conversion, “Anlly and Javier each had an aliyah, and a special mishaberach, and then we had a cake at kiddush that welcomed them,” Rabbi Fine said. “Javier said that the cake was the icing on the cake. And they both said that they felt so embraced.
“It is such a beautiful story, the conversion of four people, plus two in utero.”
So there the family was, Jewish, members of Temple Israel, the parents planning to get married before their twins were born. (They had held off until after the conversion because they wanted a Jewish wedding, which they couldn’t do before.) Everything seemed to be in order. They thought they had time. They were about to start making arrangements. But then, when she was 33 weeks pregnant, Ms. Marin-Delgado started bleeding, and Mr. Delgado rushed her to Valley Hospital. She was ordered to stay on bed rest, and it was quite likely that she’d need a hurried C-section to save the babies. There was a strong likelihood that the babies could be born at any time, and then their birth certificates would show their parents as having been unmarried. That was not what Anlly and Javier wanted.
“I said, ‘Oh my God, what are we going to do now?’” Ms. Marin-Delgado reported. “And Javier said, ‘Let’s do it now.’”
But it’s not that easy. There are mounds of paperwork, approvals, more forms, more approvals, before you can get married.
“I called Rabbi Fine,” Mr. Delgado said. “He is the superhero in this story.” But he is one of many superheroes, it turns out.
Rabbi Fine picks up the story.
He has done a few weddings in hospitals, he said, but this one was different. All the others have been because one partner is terminally ill and will die soon. Those are solemn and meaningful ceremonies. This one was different because it was about life; one of the partners was so ripe with new life that she was about to burst with it. “It was so cool!” Rabbi Fine said.
The hospital’s administration was happy to help. Its chaplain, the Rev. Mason Jenkins, ran interference for the couple; among the many touches he helped provide was the harpist who provided the music. (The hospital has what it calls therapeutic harpists who play calming music in waiting rooms.) This harpist was so glad to play at the wedding that she sought out and learned two Jewish melodies in the short time she had to prepare. “She was wonderful,” Rabbi Fine said. “It was wonderful.”
Ms. Marin-Delgado had planned to be married in her hospital gown, with her hair up in a simple bun. “And I was in a wheelchair,” she said. “I was able to get up, but I couldn’t walk a lot.”
But the nursing staff had more ambitious plans for her. When she told one of the staffers about her hospital-gown plans, “he was like, ‘Babe, you have to do better than that.’” She had a white T-shirt dress that she’d never worn, and that somehow fit her perfectly. “And one of the technicians came and did my hair,” she said. “She said ‘We have to get you nice. It is your wedding day.’”
Rev. Jenkins arranged for flowers — a lot of flowers — and food for the small reception. Johanna Resnick Rosen, a very active Temple Israel member who also is a photographer, took pictures. “Javier’s cousins got Sebastian and Simon from school, and Rabbi Fine did the wedding,” Ms. Marin-Delgado said; Alla Fine held one of the chuppah poles.
Bergen County Freeholder Tracy Zur, who also belongs to Temple Israel, held another one of the poles. “She was instrumental in moving things along,” Rabbi Fine said. The couple needed a marriage license from their own town, but Ms. Marin-Delgado could not go anywhere. Ms. Zur was able to arrange it; Maywood’s administrator, Roberta Stern — who absolutely did not have to do this — drove the license from her town to Ridgewood. And she arranged with a local judge to waive the 72-hour waiting period. “It was incredibly kind of her,” Rabbi Fine said.
The couple also got a great deal of help from another Temple Israel congregant, Audrey Myers — who is the president of Valley Hospital. “She was in London at the time, but she did a lot to help,” Rabbi Fine said. “And between the hospital, Maywood, Ridgewood, the county, Freeholder Zur, Roberta Stern, the judge, the synagogue — all those pieces form a community. You had a real sense of community from what happened.”
“It was really beautiful,” Ms. Zur said. “When David reached out to me to explain what was going on, I was just grateful that I could connect the dots.
“Roberta Stern, the administrator in Maywood, really went the extra mile,” literally. “The issue is that you need two people to fill out a marriage license. With one person on bed rest, what do you do? So many people reacted immediately, and did whatever they could to enable them to get married and begin the new chapter in their lives in the way that they wanted to. It was so meaningful to me to be able to help them.”
This was everything and everyone coming together, Ms. Zur said. Local institutions — the government and the hospital and the synagogue — and individual people all showed great heart. “And this is a family that we are so lucky to have in our community.”
For her, both as an elected government official and as a member of the synagogue, it was wonderful.
“To see something so simple and impactful, to see Valley Hospital go above and beyond, with a harpist and pink champagne and strawberries, with her wheeled in wearing a white dress — it was beautiful. It was so sweet. And everybody was behind them.”
As it turned out, the babies were not born early. After a week and a wedding in the hospital, Ms. Marin-Delgado was able to go home, where she remained on bed rest until the babies were born at 38 weeks, which is just about full term. Both the two babies and their mother were just fine.
On the eighth day after they were born, the shul hosted a brit milah for the two babies, Abram and Jonas. The newly expanded family are active members of Temple Israel, and Sebastian is scheduled to become bar mitzvah there next year.
“Now we have a platform for our family,” Ms. Marin-Delgado said. “Now we have answers for our kids.” How does it feel to be a Jewish family? “It feels good. It feels awesome. I feel so much love from the community.”
“Oh my goodness,” Mr. Delgado said. “Oh my goodness. We are so accepted.” “There is so much love,” his wife added. “So much love. And so many offers to help.
“It is so intense,” Mr. Delgado said. “Even more than I expected. I feel like I understand more now about what God wants from us than I ever did before.”
“This is what a community is,” Ms. Marin-Delgado said. “It’s living out the rule to treat others the way you want to be treated. I have always been a big believer in that, and now…
“They have shown us so much love, and that is what we have been looking for.”