For barber Yosef Maldonado, the journey from his native Puerto Rico to Beersheba via Miami, Buffalo and Beit El wasn’t nearly as long, complicated and full of adventure as the ordeal he and his wife encountered on their way to Judaism.
The gregarious 44-year-old owner of the Casa Del Barbero barbershop, located in a charming alleyway at 82 Keren Kayemet St. in Beersheba’s Old City, is a proud Jew and oleh by choice. Maldonado and his family – which now includes his wife, Rachel Yehudis and six children ages two to 20 – have faced many challenges, including the COVID pandemic, which has forced long shut downs of his barbershop; difficulties with Hebrew mastery; and Israeli bureaucracy. But they couldn’t be happier with the decision to live in Israel and in Beersheba.
Maldonado realized his dream of opening his own barbershop last year. His Facebook page and website advertise that he speaks Spanish, English and Hebrew, though he admits that Hebrew has been the most difficult language to master. “It if has to do with a haircut, I understand. I can manage. If it is a regular conversation, it is very hard,” says Maldonado.
His language skills, kind demeanor and nearly 30 years’ experience as a barber make him an ideal destination for Israelis of all backgrounds, Spanish speakers and US soldiers stationed at a military base nearby.
Maldonado has a particular fondness for servicemen and women. His father served in the US Army and was stationed in Panama for three years. As a result, Maldonado spent his first through fourth years of life in Panama. The family then returned to Puerto Rico. He fondly recalls growing up there. “I had a very nice childhood. I played baseball from age five through high school, was in the Boy Scouts, went to the beach and did all of the normal activities.”
When Maldonado was 16, he visited his uncle, a soldier stationed at Fort Benning, on the Alabama-Georgia border. Maldonado recalls making a playful comment which would impact on his professional career.
“I made fun of his very bad haircut. I said, ‘You paid for that?!” He replied, “You think it is funny? Next time, you will cut my hair!” Maldonado did!
“When I was a child, I paid attention to haircuts. They take a very long time giving haircuts in Puerto Rico. I always watched the whole time. I had the idea of what to do. My father said, ‘You have a real skill’ and encouraged me to go to barber school.”
Maldonado had always planned to go to college but his father said, “Why not go to barber school then college? If you don’t like college, you will always have the skill.” The always respectful Maldonado playfully reports, “I always listened to my dad and mom.”
On the day of his high school graduation, he took a tour of the barber school and two days later, while still 17 years old, he enrolled. When he graduated, he returned to a very familiar barbershop. “I worked in the shop I used to go to for 12 or 13 years. My boss was my barber!”
After two years, Maldonado left for college to study computer science. “I didn’t like it. It was not for me. Haircutting was my thing.”
MALDONADO married in Puerto Rico and soon relocated to Florida where most of their families lived. He worked at various jobs, including maintenance in a resort, and commercial plumbing. He continued cutting hair each day from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.
The Maldonados were soon blessed with three children and wanted to save money. Yosef took a pilot trip to Buffalo, where other family members lived. “I was pretty confident in my skills. I could do construction, plumbing and more.” He had heard the cost of living was better in Upstate New York. He also heard it was very cold.
“I figured I would go in January for six months. If I could survive the cold, I would come back in six months and bring my family.”
Approximately 45 minutes into our interview, Maldonado shared the story of his family’s path to Judaism. “Hashem obviously has it all organized. We just have to find it.”
The deep-thinking Maldonado grew up an evangelical Christian and was always wondering, “Why is it that Christians are right and the Jews are not when He chose them (the Jews) as a nation?”
Maldonado recalls that he began researching Judaism, and came across an older cousin who was asking similar questions (he also converted to Judaism). Maldonado and his wife converted to Judaism while in Miami. He would soon learn that this conversion would not be considered acceptable in his Buffalo Orthodox community.
“I thought I was Jewish already and wanted a Jewish education for my children,” says Maldonado, not sounding the least bit angry or resentful with his Jewish status being called into question. He notes that the rabbi of the school (“my spiritual father”) took him aside and asked a series of questions.
“He respectfully asked for my [conversion] papers and said they weren’t legit.” He was given the option of working with the beit din in three larger Jewish communities, each one to several hours from Buffalo.
“I just want to do it right, so there will be no questions. I have daughters and want to make sure it is all legit.”
Maldonado becomes animated. “That’s where the journey really started! The process was very long.” He continued attending synagogue daily, his daughters were in a Chabad school in Buffalo, though he felt he was carrying around a secret – and narrowly escaped numerous uncomfortable situations.
“The rabbi accepted the kids to the school. And sometimes in minyan, there would be 10 men (presumably a minyan already) and the rabbi would say, ‘We will wait for one more. Mr. So and So said he’d be here.” Maldonado remained determined.
“I wanted to do it right. I didn’t care how long it would take. At the same time, my wife was learning with the rabbi’s wife.” He reports that the “final exam” was a multi-day 500-question test, and they kept offering “outs” – the opportunity to not go forward with the conversion process. “I can see why they do it; they want to see how much we want it.”
At the end of the process, the beit din suggested a day to go to the mikveh ritual bath [part of the conversion procedure], followed by a new Jewish marriage ceremony. “In addition to asking about our following the laws of family purity, kashrut and other things, they asked, ‘Do you promise to give your kids a Jewish education?’ ‘Yes, I promise,’ ” Maldonado replied.
IN 2014, to celebrate this conversion experience, the rabbi offered an opportunity to join him on a trip to Israel. He was about to visit children and grandchildren in Beit El. “My wife gave permission, and I went.”
Maldonado’s love affair with Israel started once they arrived in Beit El. “I remember walking and looking around. This is how I grew up – kids walking around, free. This is the place I want to be! I didn’t even want to see other places!”
When he returned home to Buffalo, Maldonado shared Israel trip stories and videos and said, “I think this is a good idea.” His wife was less certain. The second intifada was raging. “She was afraid of the conflict.” Maldonado’s rabbi wisely advised him to not pressure her and “not mention it; it will come.” That day came sooner than expected.
“One day, she was sitting in the back of my barbershop, working on her computer and said, ‘You won’t believe what I did. I put in the application for aliyah.”
In August, 2015, the Maldonado family made aliyah to Beit El, where they lived for three years. Yosef started off in Israel by cleaning the streets and offices. “I had the idea to open my own barbershop, but Jerusalem was too expensive. We had five kids by then. I was afraid.”
A friend from Buffalo who had made aliyah to Beersheba invited the family to spend Shabbat in their home. “I really liked it. My wife was excited too!” The children were less happy having to give up their good friends in Beit El. At the time, one daughter was in Sherut Leumi, serving in Beersheba.
Maldonado never lost hope of opening his own barbershop. In January, 2020, he opened the shop. “It was a dream come true. Then, a month and a half later, we had our first lockdown due to COVID. People were afraid to come. I was nervous. We opened, and then there was a second lockdown. We had no customers. And I had a big family – six kids by then. The three COVID lockdowns hurt a lot, but thank God, we have been able to reopen and build more customers.”
Maldonado now cuts hair for many US soldiers from a base 20 minutes from his shop. “People from Chicago, Tampa, Utah – they all come here for haircuts.” The Spanish-speaking community also comes. “Cubans, Argentinians, Chileans, Brazilians. I feel like I will have to learn Portuguese! I also cut hair for Bedouin, Arabs, everyone!”
Maldonado thanks God that his wife has been so supportive and patient, though “there were times she thought I should close the store and get a paycheck.” She has continued to contribute to family finances by working at a local kindergarten.
The six children have adjusted well to life in Israel and Beersheba. “I thank God every day that they have adjusted so well.” Two years ago, the Maldonado’s welcomed their sixth child and first Sabra to the family.
Maldonado is pleased that he has realized his dream and persevered. “If you don’t just do it, you will always wonder… I have so much hope. It is how much you want it.” ■
YOSEF MALDONADO, 44FROM PUERTO RICO/MIAMI TO BEERSHEBA, 2015