From Illegal Immigrant to Orthodox Jew
The improbable story of one man’s Jewish journey. An Aish.com exclusive.
E. Hernandez sat alone, confined to one room in a safe-house for illegal immigrants in Los Angeles. With no family in the U.S., and no one to pay the $300 smuggler’s fee, there he sat – day after day, month after month. One day, federal marshals conducted an immigration raid in the neighborhood – knocking on every door, with orders to deport anyone illegal.
How Hernandez gained his freedom – and became an Orthodox Jewish convert – is a fascinating story. Aish.com spoke with Hernandez from his home in California, and with his son Yehudah who is currently studying at Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem.
Hernandez was born and raised in Guatemala where he enjoyed the modest lifestyle of an elementary school teacher. He considered himself fortunate not to be one of the many thousands of Guatemalan field hands who endure backbreaking jobs and squalid living conditions to earn a few pesos a day.
One day in 1992, Hernandez’s friend announced his intent to cross the border into Mexico, where the value of pesos was triple that of Guatemala. “We’ll work, make some money, and then come back,” the friend said.
Yehudah Hernandez today in Jerusalem: on the balcony of Aish HaTorah
The Guatemala-Mexico border was infamous as a passageway for migrant workers and military grade weaponry like the RPGs favored by Mexican drug cartels. Hernandez, then age 20, agreed to go along with the plan. “It was easy to cross the border, so why not?” he says.
In the dark of night, Hernandez and his friend snuck across the Mexican border. They found their way to a southern Mexican coastal town, Pesqueria La Gloria, where they obtained Mexican ID papers. After a few months, Hernandez had earned enough pesos and was ready to return to life in Guatemala. But on the urging of his friend, they moved to Mexico City “in order to make more pesos, while settling in an extremely dangerous neighborhood.”
Soon, Hernandez’s friend revealed his original plan: to move onward to the land of unlimited opportunity, the United States of America.
Hernandez was content to stay in Mexico, but eventually agreed to the plan and found himself on a 3-day bus ride to the U.S.-Mexico gateway: Tijuana. En route, they were stopped twice by Mexican immigration officials who checked their IDs and sent them onward.
Once in Tijuana, Hernandez and his friend arranged to pay "coyotes" to help smuggle them across the border. In a coordinated process involving many operatives, they were placed in a safe-house near the border and waited patiently while the coyotes monitored the movements of the U.S. border patrol – in search of a safe opportunity to cross.
In preparation, the coyote running the safe-house surprised Hernandez and his friend by adding another condition: Once smuggled into the U.S., they’d need to pay $300 each for their “freedom.”
“My friend had an aunt in the U.S.,” Hernandez explains. “The coyote phoned her and she promised to pay the fee. But I didn’t have anyone, so I figured I’d just stay in Mexico.”
The next morning, while Hernandez waited in the safe-house, a group of 10 migrants tried to “run the beach” – venturing out into the water and past the metal barriers that extend into the Pacific.
The U.S. border patrol pushed them back to Mexico.
That night, the group tried a second time – and again failed to cross the border.
The coyote began investigating what might be causing this string of bad luck. After interrogating Hernandez’s friend, the coyote concluded: “It’s because you abandoned your friend here.”
The next night, they took Hernandez along – and crossed the border easily.
Hernandez and the group were brought to Los Angeles and placed in a safe-house that doubled as a drug den.
“Everyone had somebody to pay the $300, so they were all quickly released,” Hernandez says. “But with no one to pay for me, I was confined to one room of the safe-house. I sat there in squalid conditions, day after day, for many weeks, basically imprisoned.”
In the wake of the 1992 LA race riots (spurred by the Rodney King verdict), President George H.W. Bush ordered an immigration raid on Hernandez’s neighborhood. As federal marshals checked house to house, Hernandez worried he’d be deported back to Mexico. Yet the raids turned out to be a blessing in disguise: The coyotes wanted to empty the safe-house and were under pressure to get him out.
“I had no money and no family, so the coyotes called my friend’s aunt and pressured her to help. Eventually, her husband offered $175 to set me free. He told the coyotes: ‘Either take the money or send him back to Mexico. I don’t really care.’”
Hernandez gets pensive and chuckles. “$175. That’s all my life was worth.”
Once free, Hernandez settled into a neighborhood densely populated by Guatemalan immigrants. “Every morning, I would go out and wait near the local Home Depot,” he says. “People would come and hire me for a few hours.”
Hoping for a better future, Hernandez’s break came when his friend’s family in Orange County, 60 minutes south of LA, offered them a place to stay. There, while attending English classes, he met a Mexican woman who had walked across the border easily in 1989. They got married, and after having two boys, became involved in a Christian-Messianic church that incorporated various Jewish traditions.
In 1999, they were expecting their third child. Inspired by the Jewish teachings he heard at church, Hernandez promised God: “If it’s a boy, I will give him a circumcision.”
Indeed it was a boy, and in 2000, Hernandez found himself at a Judaica store on Pico Boulevard in LA, staring at an advertisement for a mohel, Rabbi Yehuda Lebovics. “I called and told him that we don’t have enough money, but he agreed to do it for whatever we could pay,” Hernandez recounts. “When he came to do the bris and realized we’re not Jewish, he did it anyway, without saying the blessings.”
The bris of Yehudah Hernandez, 2000: Ezra with the LA mohel, Rabbi Yehuda Lebovics
Hernandez was so moved by the mohel’s generosity and compassion that he gave his new son the mohel’s name: Yehudah.
In Orange County, Hernandez found steady work as a welder. Time went by and someone gave him a Sefardic Siddur. From this Siddur, Hernandez taught himself to read Hebrew. “I discovered the beautiful morning blessings,” he says. “With every prayer, I felt closer to God.”
Hernandez taught his three sons to read Hebrew and together they shared a budding interest in Judaism as the path to connect with God. At the church, they asked many questions and received unsatisfactory answers.
In 2009, a friend whom they’d known from the Christian-Messianic church – who’d converted to Orthodox Judaism – invited the Hernandez family to attend a Simchat Torah celebration at Beth Jacob of Irvine, led by Rabbi Yisroel Ciner.
“I was moved by the incredibly joyous dancing,” Hernandez says. “I was called up for an aliyah to the Torah, but I told them I’m not Jewish. I asked Rabbi Ciner to give us opportunity to learn more, and he helped us with patience and kindness.”
Beth Jacob – known as a melting pot of immigrants from South Africa, Argentina, Turkey, Mexico, China, Morocco, etc. – welcomed the Hernandez family (along with their youngest, a daughter) into the community.
The family resolved to convert to Judaism, yet in their quest to find their place in the world, one major obstacle loomed: Hernandez was an illegal immigrant.
Ezra Hernandez with his first siddur,
received from a friend in 2004
Hernandez heard about a federal program that allowed migrants from Guatemala and Central America to apply for political asylum and receive permanent U.S. residency status in the form of a Green Card. The application process takes years and in many cases is denied.
Hoping to resolve his status, Hernandez visited a lawyer who entered the information from his original Mexican work permit into the computer. The result gave Hernandez a shock: An order had been issued nearly 20 years earlier for his deportation.
“That was one of the most difficult days of my life,” he says. “All those years, I was unaware that the immigration authorities were looking for me. I was lucky because I hadn’t been careful.”
Hernandez hired a lawyer for $10,000 who gave him a 50-50 chance of becoming legal. “The situation was extremely stressful and I begged God to help. Here I was with a household of six and at risk of deportation.”
A breakthrough came when the lawyer found the original deportation order sent to Hernandez in 1993. The recipient is supposed to sign the letter verifying receipt, but Hernandez never signed it. So he went to court and convinced a judge to erase the deportation order, clearing the way to apply for political asylum.
Hernandez had the support and letter of recommendation from the rabbi and other members of the synagogue. But the legal process dragged on, with judges deferring a decision on his status – leaving the Hernandez family in despair.
One night, Hernandez dreamed that the court had signed the papers granting him permanent residency. “One week later, my Green Card was approved,” he says. “Miraculously, I was now legal in the U.S.”
One of the first things Hernandez did was travel to Guatemala to visit his father, whom he hadn’t seen in nearly 25 years. At the airport, border patrol agents checked his fingerprints and pulled him over to the side. “I knew something was wrong,” Hernandez says. “The system showed that I’d been deported. Fortunately, I had the papers to prove otherwise.”
Meanwhile, the family’s Jewish journey had stalled. All of Hernandez’s money had gone to paying lawyers to resolve his immigration status, and with America mired in a recession, finances were tight. Moving into Irvine’s Orthodox neighborhood – a prerequisite for conversion – was not an option.
Hernandez continued to stay connected by driving to synagogue every Shabbat, reading Jewish books, and praying from the Siddur. But it wasn’t enough. He recalls driving home one Saturday after synagogue: “Right there on the freeway, I cried out to God: ‘I can’t do this anymore!’ There was a fire burning inside and I wanted to convert.”
In 2017, economic circumstances improved and the Hernandez family moved into the Jewish neighborhood. They immediately began the conversion process with the Beit Din of Rabbi Moshe Hafuta, driving every Sunday to Los Angeles for classes. (The two older sons opted not to convert.)
In the spring of 2018, a few days before Passover, they drove up to Los Angeles for a final meeting with the Beit Din. They answered a round of questions and dunked in the mikveh. Hernandez was now Ezra, his wife was now Chana Leah… and Yehudah was the rare Jewish convert who didn’t need a new name.
Re-marriage, 2018 (L-R): Chana Leah, Ezra, Rabbi Ciner, and Aviva Hernandez
Back in Orange County, Ezra and Chana Leah remarried under the chuppah and Rabbi Ciner hosted a celebratory feast, amidst great tears of joy.
This Year in Jerusalem
In January 2020, after completing his sophomore year of college, Yehudah Hernandez arrived in Israel to study at the Aish HaTorah yeshiva. Today, he and 80 other yeshiva students are riding out coronavirus in the Old City of Jerusalem – living and studying in one of the few yeshivas in the world functioning today. The students abide by strict health regulations; a limit of 10 people are allowed in the study hall at one time and the yeshiva has created a number of small study halls to accommodate everyone, and the students are not even permitted to visit the Western Wall, just outside their window.
Yehudah is enjoying a deep dive into the world of Talmud, Hebrew ulpan, and Jewish law. Next year, he plans to return to the U.S. and complete a degree in business administration.
In this amazing true story, it’s anyone’s guess what will happen next.