Only one more detail has to be finalized before Rabbi Alberto (Baruch) Zeilicovich, who led Fair Lawn’s Temple Beth Sholom for the last 10 years, and his wife, Graciela, can make aliyah with Nefesh b’Nefesh. He must fill a small box he plans to take with him.
“I told my congregants that while I am packing a lot of boxes, the most important one is coming with me,” Rabbi Zeilicovich, whose contract expired at the end of 2020, said. His heart is in that box, “filled with the love they provided for me and my family.”
Last month, the congregation held a virtual gala celebrating the achievements of both Zeilicoviches, as well as Rabbi Zeilicovich’s 70th birthday. Attendees included congregants from Fair Lawn and earlier pulpits as well as colleagues from North Jersey, Israel, Argentina, and throughout the United States.
Rabbi Zeilicovich — as can be seen from the guest list — has had a varied, exciting, and multicultural rabbinate. Born in Argentina, he graduated from the University of Buenos Aires with a degree in psychology and earned a degree in Jewish education from the Seminario Rab’nico Latinoamericano. He completed his rabbinical studies at the Schechter Institute in Israel.
Before coming to Beth Sholom, he was the rabbi of Congregation Ahavath Sholom in Fort Worth, Texas, and also at congregations in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Medellin, Colombia, where he had to contend with the country’s omnipresent drug cartels.
Nor is his rabbinate finished, he said.
In Israel, he will work with the Masorti movement — that’s the Conservative movement outside North American — on the TALI program, “bringing in Jewish teachings that secular, nonreligious schools don’t provide. Parents are asking for that,” he said, explaining that he will be involved in “training teachers to elevate the study of Judaism.” The intention is to teach children that being a Jew means more than just living in Israel. “It’s also about tradition,” he said.
The rabbi’s multicultural background, embracing not only different countries but also different cultural milieus in the United States, has taught him many lessons.
“The cultural shock was not that much with the Latin American and North American way of life, but with Judaism,” he said. “In Latin America, they’re not that religious. It’s not a core part of being Jewish.” Instead, he said, Latin American Jews’ concerns are Israel, Zionism, and peoplehood.
“Here, it’s related to the synagogue,” he continued. “Jewish education is about knowing how to pray and use a prayerbook. In my opinion, the national component of Jewish identity here is not as strong as the religious component. In the last election, Israel was not part of the conversation.” That, he said, is because talking about Israel would cause discomfort for many Jews.
Reflecting on his 10 years at Beth Sholom, Rabbi Zeilicovich shied away from the word legacy. “It’s such a big word,” he said. Nevertheless, he was proud of what he has accomplished at the synagogue. Certainly, he acknowledged, the congregation is different now from what he encountered on arrival.
“I think the difference is the healing that went on in the congregation,” he said. “When I came, the congregation was really in a very bad spiritual condition. It had a fight with its previous rabbi, and a lawsuit, and they were not so happy. The congregation started not to have a good name. We live in a small community, with a lot of Jews and temples, so when one has internal problems, it’s known to everyone else.” His first task, therefore, “was to try to heal the situation, and I think we did that.”
His second major accomplishment, he said, was increasing the number of adult education classes and stressing to his congregants “the importance of education for each individual. We have a huge program of adult education.
“For nine years, I’ve been going to the Shalom Hartman Institute’s summer rabbinic training program, and when I come back the first thing I do is a workshop or series of classes on what I learned there.
“We need to increase the level of Jewish education,” he continued. “You cannot love what you don’t know. Commitment to a Jewish way of life is what the Jewish religion is about. It’s not about having faith but about how you behave, deeds as well as creed. There’s a Jewish way of doing things, whether eating, mating, or dealing with money. Education can’t end at the age of 13.”
Rabbi Zeilicovich said that he is particularly proud of getting his congregants actually to read the Chumash while the Torah portion is being chanted on Shabbat. “I always have a commentary and ask something that is intellectually challenging,” he said, and that causes congregants to delve deeper into the reading. “For 10 years, they were really reading Torah,” he said.
Rabbi Zeilicovich also pointed out that when he arrived, “the Hebrew school was in bad shape, in terms of numbers.” Working with Ridgewood’s Temple Israel, “we decided to merge and create NNJJA.” Pronounced ninja, like the turtles, “the arrangement worked for 10 years.” The merger accomplished a lot, he said. “When the students had a bar or bat mitzvah, they had an entire row of classmates because of NNJJA.”
Sadly, due to declining numbers, Beth Sholom recently pulled out of the program. “There just weren’t enough children,” Rabbi Zeilicovich said, noting that the synagogue will make a push to attract more families with young children. Fortunately, he said, the nursery school has thrived, and he has enjoyed sharing in all its celebrations.
What did he gain from his 10 years with the Fair Lawn congregation? “The satisfaction of rabbinic and pastoral work, leaving the congregation in better shape than it was in 10 years ago,” he said. One of his goals was to model Jewish values, “setting an example that every human being should be treated with dignity.”
That goal bore fruit. The creation of a chesed committee, embracing “good-hearted people who want to do a mitzvah,” facilitates participation by volunteers in comforting the sick. After the rabbi visits shul members who are in the hospital, the volunteers follow up with phone calls and greeting cards, maintaining a caring connection after the patients return home.
Rabbi Zeilicovich also established a social action committee. “One of the first things to teach is that people cannot take care only of themselves,” he said. “There are people in need in our community and we have to provide for them.” He recited a Spanish saying that translates roughly as, “Do good without looking to whom.” (Admittedly it’s smoother in its original Spanish.) Jewish values are not only about worshiping God, he said, “but also helping others.”
Richard Michaelson was president of the congregation for four years during Rabbi Zeilicovich’s tenure, and he headed the search committee that brought the rabbi to Fair Lawn. “I’m sure we’ll stay in touch one way or another,” Mr. Michaelson said. “I’m sad he’s leaving.
“He brought his worldview and broad experience to us in Fair Lawn in a way that was really thought provoking. We’re used to thinking as Americans. He brought a much bigger view of the world, a bigger canvas to subjects that we might be used to discussing simply from an American point of view,” Mr. Michaelson said. This broader vantage point was not only geopolitical, but extended to Judaism as well. “He had a different approach that would raise interesting discussions.”
Working with him was different from working with other rabbis, he added. “He was so human, so approachable, so comfortable to talk to. I would go with him for a cup of coffee, one of his favorite things in life.” The rabbi, he said, loves Manhattan. “He thinks of New York as a happy, Jewish-centric place and always feels comfortable there. Wherever we went, he would converse in the language of the person who worked there. He’s so multilingual and he loves engaging people.” Rabbi Zeilicovich made new friends on every visit.
“He loves getting people to question,” Mr. Michaelson said. “He never lectured or gave you the answer. It’s an unusual way to engage people. He was just interested in your asking the question. He loves music. He’ll come up with two popular songs about whatever you’re talking about. He even interjected them into sermons.”
Congregant Harry Melzer, longtime chair of adult education, said he has enjoyed working with Rabbi Zeilicovich to expand that program. “The depth of his knowledge is remarkable,” he said, as is “his ability to be down to earth and deal across the board with the full spectrum of congregants, something many of us had not experienced.” Like Mr. Michaelson, Mr. Melzer said he will miss his coffee with the rabbi; his coffee consumption increased markedly during the rabbi’s tenure, he added.
In his remarks at the gala, Mr. Melzer quoted Pirkei Avot’s admonition to “Provide for yourself a teacher and get yourself a friend.” The shul, he said, had indeed provided itself with a teacher “with enthusiasm, energy, and creativity.” In a relationship marked by collaboration, “we created new programs such as Shabbat Lunch-and-Learn, Sunday morning lectures, weeknight classes, and an educational Selichot program.” Rabbi Zeilocovich “presented over 100 classes, lectures, lunch-and-learn sessions, and discussion groups on topics ranging from Talmud to Israeli history, from the psychology of ritual to Prophets.”
He also credited Rabbi Zeilicovich with coordinating scholar-in-residence programs, “oversubscribed by our members,” and leading trips to the New York Public Library and the JCC in Manhattan and to many lectures at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly. In addition, he cited the creation of a Talmud study group and Jewish observance study group, as well as the rabbi’s participation in the five rabbis lecture series, “offering the first ‘joint’ adult education in the area.”
According to Mr. Melzer, the shul’s Cantor David Krasner will pinch hit as the congregation’s religious leader until the rabbinic search committee provides the synagogue with a new rabbi.