A conversation with Rabbi Zeilicovich

A conversation with Rabbi Zeilicovich

Rabbi Alberto Zeilicovich – who will be installed as religious leader of Temple Beth Sholom on Dec. 19 ““ is glad to be in Fair Lawn.

The rabbi, who was ordained by the Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano in Buenos Aires and spent the past 11 years with a congregation in Fort Worth, Texas, said he and his wife, Graciela, finally decided “that it was time to find a place where we don’t need to drive 400 miles for a kosher sandwich.”

Zeilicovich, who holds degrees in psychology and education, began his rabbinic career in Medellin, Colombia, home to some 4,000 Jews.

“I was rabbi there for six years, during the war between the drug-dealing cartel and the government,” he told The Jewish Standard. “You can’t imagine what it was like.” He described a situation where car bombs exploded on a regular basis and drug traffickers engaged in kidnapping and assassination.

Rabbi Alberto Zeilicovich will be installed as spiritual leader of Fair Lawn’s Temple Beth Sholom on Dec. 19.

“You can’t imagine what it was like for a rabbi, in a congregation of 200 families, to have to bury a 19-year-old, a 25-year-old, a 30-year-old, and to be at the house of a family where the father was kidnapped. Everyone jumped when the phone rang.”

Nor was it comfortable to go to shul with bodyguards, he said, noting that the Latin American region of the Rabbinical Assembly subsequently presented him with a pastoral merit award for staying in the ravaged city.

“Rabbis are not just for bar mitzvahs,” he said, crediting his wife for remaining at his side during these difficult years. “We have a lot of privileges, but we also have obligations.”

He stayed in Medellin until the drug cartel disbanded. The next three years were spent peacefully in a congregation in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

The rabbi spoke warmly of his years in Fort Worth, which he called “one of the best-kept secrets in the U.S.” The only problem, he said, was the difficulty of being observant in an area that lacked a Hebrew day school, kosher restaurant, and other Jewish institutions.

Still, he said, his congregants tried their best, attending minyans each day and maintaining a kosher kitchen in the synagogue.

“It was the only kosher place in Fort Worth,” he said, adding the congregation also had active USY and Kadima youth groups. In addition, he said, he was the only rabbi to serve as president of the city’s Rotary Club.

His own children, Ruthie and Daniel (now 21 and 19, respectively), commuted to the Solomon Schechter school in Dallas – 50 miles away.

“For me, it was non-negotiable,” he said. “In a country with 5 million Jews, why in the world would we send our children to a non-Jewish school?”

Later, they attended the American Hebrew Academy in Greensboro, N.C.

“That was one of the best decisions we ever made,” he said, describing the school as pluralistic, committed to high-tech, and environmentally conscious. “It should be the pride of the Jewish community in the United States.”

In 1993, invited by colleagues from Colombia, Zeilicovich joined a mission to Cuba organized by the Joint Distribution Committee.

“I was part of a rabbinical tribunal that performed the first conversions and weddings after 35 years of communism,” he said. “We were there because the government allowed us to be there,” he added. “We raised the first chuppah after years in which there was no Jewish life.”

Now, he said, the renewed Cuban Jewish community is doing quite well. He noted, for example, that President Raul Castro recently joined the Jewish community at Havana’s Shalom synagogue for a Chanukah celebration.

The rabbi said that when his daughter graduated from high school and announced that she wanted to attend Brandeis, he and his wife decided to relocate to a city “where Yiddishkeit would not be so rare.”

“Here I have colleagues and Jewish institutions and activities – what you take for granted,” he said. “I don’t have words to describe how much I enjoy it.”

Zeilicovich said it is his intention to “transform Beth Sholom into a thriving place and put it back on the map.”

His first priority, he said, is to bring healing to the synagogue, which recently weathered a serious controversy.

“The healing process is crucial,” he said.

In addition, he hopes to “engage the membership in working together in areas like education” and to develop a social action committee.

“I want to make people understand that we must be very active in that particular area,” he said. “We’re here to do tikkun olam, to make a better world every day.”

Congregations are about relationships, said Zeilicovich, who will be installed on his birthday.

“You try to create an environment of camaraderie, support, respect, warmth, teaching, and learning,” he said, pointing out that when people look at congregations, they should not look for size but rather for quality. “They should ask about who you are and how you are – not how many members, but are they good people? Nice? Supportive?”

Rabbis, he said, must serve not only as worship leaders but as “facilitators for enhancing relationships among members of the congregation.”

His approach has struck a chord in the synagogue, said Steven Ezratty, president of the 240-member congregation.

Calling the response “overwhelmingly positive,” Ezratty said the rabbi, who came to the shul in August, “has already been able to engage all of our congregants – from our children to our seniors and everyone in between.”

Citing Zeilicovich’s “warm personality and delightful sense of humor,” he added that the rabbi is also “perfectly in line with the temple’s goal of making itself a welcoming house of worship and education for families, singles, and seniors.”

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