Aruba’s new rabbi comes out of retirement to lead a congregation in ‘paradise’
ORANJESTAD, Aruba (JTA) — One of Alberto Zeilicovich’s first duties as a Conservative rabbi was to officiate the funeral of a 20-year-old fellow member, who was murdered by a drug cartel while enjoying a night out with friends at a disco.
It was the late 1980s in Medellin, Colombia, and Zeilicovich entered the pulpit at the height of the Colombian drug wars and the reign of the notorious king Pablo Escobar. Two years later, another six members of the community murdered by the cartel were buried.
“We felt fear,” Zeilicovich, who goes by Baruch, said of his six years in Medellin. “The president of the congregation told me that you cannot walk on Shabbos to the synagogue, ‘You should come with a car.’ I asked him, ‘Are you afraid someone is going to kidnap me?’ He said, ‘No, I’m afraid someone will kill you.’
To give him a break, the Zeilicovich family set off on a trip to Aruba and Curacao, islands where, he recalls, he could “get a little out of a very dangerous situation.”
That journey from 1990 led to the end of his career: Zeilicovich recently came out of retirement to begin a three-year contract as rabbi at Beth Israel Synagogue, a small synagogue on the Dutch island of Aruba in the southern Caribbean. He visited the island at least once a year for the past 32 years.
“First of all, the people are very friendly,” he says of Aruba, which has a population of about 100,000 and is officially called a “fellow country” of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. “Secondly, it’s a very safe place. And thirdly, the island is a paradise. Everything is so beautiful.”
The synagogue, located in the island’s capital, Oranjestad, is not associated with any Jewish movement but operates in the style of a horizontal Conservative movement. It’s just a block from one of Aruba’s signature white sand beaches and a five-minute drive to perhaps the most famous, Eagle Beach.
Although Zeilicovich no longer needs armed security guards to escort him to synagogue as he did in Medellin, he still brings to the pulpit the hard life lessons he learned during those turbulent years in Colombia. .
“When I was in Medellin I noticed how a rabbi should teach the people about the most important things in life,” he says. “That shaped me to understand the role a rabbi should play – a facilitator for everyone to be a better Jew, a better person.”
Zeilicovich, who speaks five languages, was born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he experienced anti-Semitism and life under an oppressive military regime. He studied at a rabbinic seminary in Buenos Aires before completing his ordination at the Schechter Institute for Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.
After six years in Medellin, Zeilicovich moved to a synagogue in Bogota, the capital of Colombia, before stints in Puerto Rico, Texas and more recently in New Jersey, where he announced his resignation from Temple Beth Sholom in Fair Lawn in late 2020. .
Zeilicovich and his wife Graciela moved to Israel when he received a phone call from Daniel Kripper, an Argentinian friend and colleague who was retiring as the rabbi of Aruba’s Beth Israel.
“He called me and said, ‘Baruch, what are you doing in Israel?’ I said I’m going to the beach. He said, ‘Why don’t you come to the beach in Aruba, where you can have a reunion?’ And I said, ‘Why not?'”
According to Beth Israel board member Richenella Wever, Zeilicovich fits in well with the synagogue’s diverse community. “His way of thinking, teaching and his ability to relate the Torah to everyday life is amazing,” she said.
Jewish life in Aruba dates back to the 16th century, when immigrants arrived from the Netherlands and Portugal. In 1754, Moses Solomon Levie Maduro, who came from a prominent Portuguese Jewish family in Curaçao, settled in Aruba, where he founded the Aruban branch of the Dutch West India Company. Maduro paved the way for more immigrants but the island’s Jewish population has always remained small. It’s about 100 now.
In 1956, the Kingdom of the Netherlands officially recognized the Jewish community of Aruba; Beth Israel was consecrated six years later. The synagogue calls itself “an egalitarian conservative temple that maintains Sephardic and Ashkenazic traditions.” In addition to Beth Israel, there is a Chabad chapter on the island which was opened in 2013.
With a membership of 50 local families and a few dozen overseas residents, Beth Israel has limited resources. A Dutch law requiring the government to pay the salaries of clergy in Dutch overseas territories helps the synagogue stay solvent.
“This is really unique,” says Zeilicovich. “You can be a minister of an evangelical church, a Roman Catholic priest, an imam from a mosque or a rabbi from a synagogue — the government pays the salary.
“When I want to brag about myself, I say I’m an employee of the Dutch Crown,” he said with a smile.
Zeilicovich says the Aruban government has been very supportive of the Jewish community, even erecting a life-size bronze statue of Anne Frank in 2010 in Queen Wilhelmina Park in downtown Oranjestad.
“That means they respect the Jewish community,” he says. “And they are very sympathetic to us about the Holocaust.”
Zeilicovich says a typical Friday night Shabbat service attracts about 20 people, about one-third of whom are tourists. Some arrive on the many cruise ships docked just a mile away from the synagogue; others stay at condos or at one of Aruba’s posh resorts.
If there are not enough worshipers for a prayer quorum of 10 on Saturday morning, a Torah study group meets instead. The synagogue’s small sanctuary can hold 60 worshipers and is usually full for the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur each fall.
“We are a friendly and welcoming community,” says Zeilicovich. “We are a family – mishpocha. When you come here, we do our best to make you feel that way.”
In fact, a popular item in the synagogue’s small gift shop is a T-shirt with the words “Bon Bini Shalom” printed on it. Bon Bini means “welcome” in Papiamento, the Portuguese-based Creole language spoken in Caribbean Dutch.
Zeilicovich says one of his priorities as the new rabbi is to improve the synagogue’s marketing efforts and revamp its website. He also says that Aruba’s Jewish community is often overshadowed by Curacao, its Dutch neighbor to the east that is home to the oldest continuously used synagogue in the Americas.
“We’re behind the marketing,” he said. “And we realize we’re missing a huge opportunity.”
So far, Zeilicovich is enjoying his time in Aruba and can only marvel at how his life has changed since he was a rabbi in Medellin when he was going from his home to the synagogue a dangerous cage.
“I think about that and I look up to heaven and I say, ‘God, thank you.'”