Aruba’s new rabbi comes out of retirement to steer a congregation in ‘paradise’


ORANJESTAD, Aruba (JTA) — One among Alberto Zeilicovich’s first tasks as a Conservative rabbi was once to officiate the funeral of a 20-year-old congregant, murdered by way of a drug cartel whilst taking part in an evening out together with his buddies at a disco.

It was once the overdue Eighties in Medellin, Colombia, and Zeilicovich had entered the pulpit on the top of the Colombian drug wars and the reign of infamous kingpin Pablo Escobar. Two years later, he would bury any other member of the congregation murdered by way of the cartel.

“We felt concern,” Zeilicovich, who is going by way of Baruch, mentioned about his six years in Medellin. “The president of the congregation instructed me you can not stroll on Shabbos to the synagogue, ‘You must include a automobile.’ I requested, ‘Are you afraid any person goes to kidnap me?’ He mentioned, ‘No, I’m afraid anyone will kill you.’”

To present him a damage, a congregant despatched Zeilicovich on a go back and forth to Aruba and Curacao, islands the place, he recalled, he may just “unplug a bit bit from a state of affairs that was once very bad.”

That 1990 go back and forth would in the long run outcome within the different bookend of his profession: Zeilicovich just lately got here out of retirement to start a three-year contract because the rabbi of Beth Israel Synagogue, a small synagogue at the Dutch island of Aruba within the southern Caribbean Sea. He had visited the island once or more a yr for the previous 32 years.

“First, the individuals are very pleasant,” he says of Aruba, which has a inhabitants of about 100,000 and is formally known as a “constituent nation” of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. “2nd, it’s an excessively secure position. And 0.33, the island is a paradise. The whole thing is so stunning.”

The synagogue, situated within the island’s capital town of Oranjestad, isn’t affiliated with any motion of Judaism however operates within the genre of the egalitarian Conservative motion. It is only a block from one in every of Aruba’s signature white-sand seashores and a five-minute power to Eagle Seashore, in all probability its most famed.

Whilst Zeilicovich now not wishes armed safety guards to accompany him to synagogue as he did in Medellin, he nonetheless brings to the pulpit the tricky existence classes he realized right through the ones tumultuous years in Colombia.

Temple Beth Israel, a Conservative-style synagogue in Oranjestad, Aruba, was once consecrated in 1962. (Dan Fellner/ JTA)

“Being in Medellin made me understand how a rabbi must train the congregation about what are an important issues in existence,” he says.  “That formed me in working out what the position of a rabbi must be — a facilitator for everyone to be a greater Jew, a greater individual.”

Zeilicovich, who speaks 5 languages, was once born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the place he skilled antisemitism and existence underneath an oppressive army regime. He studied at a rabbinical seminary in Buenos Aires sooner than finishing his ordination on the Schechter Institute of Jewish Research in Jerusalem.

Following his six years in Medellin, Zeilicovich moved to a synagogue in Bogota, the capital town of Colombia, sooner than rabbinical stints in Puerto Rico, Texas and maximum just lately New Jersey, the place he introduced his retirement from Temple Beth Sholom in Truthful Garden in overdue 2020.

Zeilicovich and his spouse Graciela had moved to Israel when he were given a telephone name from Daniel Kripper, a pal and fellow Argentine who was once retiring because the rabbi of Aruba’s Beth Israel.

“He known as me and mentioned, ‘Baruch, what are you doing in Israel?’ I mentioned I’m going to the seashore.  He mentioned, ‘Why don’t you come back to the seashore in Aruba the place you’ll have a congregation once more?’ And I mentioned, ‘Why no longer?’”

In keeping with Richenella Wever, a member of the Beth Israel board, Zeilicovich has been a excellent are compatible with the synagogue’s numerous congregation. “His frame of mind, educating and his skill to attach the Torah with day-to-day existence is fantastic,” she mentioned.

Jewish existence in Aruba dates again to the sixteenth century, when immigrants arrived from the Netherlands and Portugal. In 1754, Moses Solomon Levie Maduro, who got here from a distinguished Portuguese Jewish circle of relatives in Curacao, settled in Aruba, the place he based the Aruba department of the Dutch West Indies Corporate. Maduro lead the way for extra immigrants however the island’s Jewish inhabitants has at all times remained small. It’s now about 100.

In 1956, the Dutch Kingdom formally identified the Jewish neighborhood of Aruba; Beth Israel was once consecrated six years later. The synagogue calls itself a “Conservative egalitarian temple protecting Sephardic and Ashkenazic traditions.” Along with Beth Israel, there’s a Chabad bankruptcy at the island that opened in 2013.

With a club of simply 50 native households and a couple of dozen out of the country citizens, Beth Israel has restricted sources. A Dutch legislation stipulating that the salaries of clergy in Holland’s out of the country territories be paid by way of the federal government is helping the synagogue stay solvent.

A bronze statue of Anne Frank stands within the Queen Wilhelmina Park in downtown Oranjestad, Aruba, at left; at proper, a T-shirt on the market within the Beth Israel present store in Aruba reads ‘Bon Bini,’ that means ‘welcome’ in Papiamento, the native language. (Dan Fellner/ JTA)

“That is in reality distinctive,” says Zeilicovich. “You’ll be able to be a minister of an evangelical church, a Roman Catholic priest, an imam from a mosque or a rabbi from a synagogue — the federal government will pay the wage.

“Once I wish to brag about myself, I say I’m an worker of the Crown of Holland,” he added with amusing.

Zeilicovich says the Aruban govt has been extremely supportive of the Jewish neighborhood, even erecting a life-sized bronze statue in 2010 of Anne Frank in Queen Wilhelmina Park in downtown Oranjestad.

“That suggests they have got recognize for the Jewish neighborhood,” he says. “And they’re very sympathetic with us concerning the Holocaust.”

Zeilicovich says an ordinary Friday night time Shabbat provider draws about 20 folks, about one-third of whom are vacationers. Some arrive at the many cruise ships that dock only a mile clear of the synagogue; others keep at condos or at one in every of Aruba’s posh lodges.

If there aren’t sufficient worshippers for a prayer quorum of 10 on Saturday mornings, a Torah find out about team meets as an alternative. The synagogue’s small sanctuary can grasp 60 worshipers and is generally complete for the Prime Vacations of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur every fall.

“We’re a pleasant, welcoming congregation,” Zeilicovich says. “We’re circle of relatives — mishpocha.  While you come right here, we attempt to make you’re feeling that means.”

Certainly, a well-liked merchandise within the synagogue’s small present store is a T-shirt imprinted with the phrases “Bon Bini Shalom.” Bon Bini manner “welcome” in Papiamento, the Portuguese-based Creole language spoken within the Dutch Caribbean.

Zeilicovich says one in every of his priorities as the brand new rabbi is to strengthen the synagogue’s advertising efforts and revamp its website online. He provides that Aruba’s Jewish neighborhood ceaselessly is overshadowed by way of Curacao, its Dutch neighbor to the east this is house to the oldest synagogue in steady use within the Americas.

“We’re in the back of in advertising,” he mentioned. “And we perceive we’re lacking an enormous alternative.”

For now, Zeilicovich is taking part in his time in Aruba and will’t lend a hand however surprise at how his existence has modified since his days as a rabbi in Medellin when simply getting from his house to the synagogue was once a perilous ordeal.

“I take into consideration that and glance to heaven and say, ‘God, thanks.’”



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