ORANJESTAD, Aruba — One of Alberto Zeilicovich’s first duties as a Conservative rabbi was to officiate at the funeral of a 20-year-old congregant, who was murdered by a drug cartel while he was enjoying a night out with his friends at a disco.
It was the late 1980s in Medellin, Colombia, and Rabbi Zeilicovich had entered the pulpit at the height of the Colombian drug wars and the reign of notorious kingpin Pablo Escobar. Two years later, he would bury another member of the congregation murdered by the cartel.
“We felt fear,” Rabbi Zeilicovich, who goes by Baruch, said about his six years in Medellin. “The president of the congregation told me you cannot walk on Shabbos to the synagogue. ‘You should come with a car.’ I asked, ‘Are you afraid someone is going to kidnap me?’ He said, ‘No, I am afraid somebody will kill you.’”
To give him a break, a congregant sent Rabbi Zeilicovich on a trip to Aruba and Curacao, islands where, he recalled, he could “unplug a little bit from a situation that was very dangerous.”
That 1990 trip ultimately would result in the other bookend of his career.
Rabbi Zeilicovich recently came out of retirement to begin a three-year contract as the rabbi of Beth Israel Synagogue, a small shul on the Dutch island of Aruba in the southern Caribbean, about 20 miles off the coast of Venezuela. He has visited the island at least once a year for the last 32 years.
“First, the people are very friendly,” he said of Aruba, which has a population of about 100,000 and is officially called a “constituent country” of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. “Second, it’s a very safe place. And third, the island is a paradise. Everything is so beautiful.”
The synagogue, in the island’s capital city of Oranjestad, is not affiliated with any Jewish stream but operates in the style of the egalitarian Conservative movement. It is just a block from one of Aruba’s signature white-sand beaches and a five-minute drive to Eagle Beach, perhaps its most famous.
While Rabbi Zeilicovich no longer needs armed security guards to accompany him to synagogue as he did in Medellin, he still brings to the pulpit the difficult life lessons learned during those tumultuous years in Colombia.
“Being in Medellin made me realize how a rabbi should teach the congregation about what are the most important things in life,” he said. “That shaped me in understanding what the role of a rabbi should be — a facilitator for everybody to be a better Jew, a better person.”
Rabbi Zeilicovich, who speaks five languages, was born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he experienced antisemitism and life under an oppressive military regime. He studied at a rabbinical seminary in Buenos Aires before completing his ordination at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.
After his six years in Medellin, Zeilicovich moved to a synagogue in Bogota, the capital city of Colombia, before rabbinical stints in Puerto Rico and Texas.
Then, in 2011, he went to Fair Lawn, where he led Beth Sholom for 10 years. He announced his retirement, following through on his plan to make aliyah, in late 2020.
Rabbi Zeilicovich and his wife, Graciela, had stared their new post-retirement lives in Israel when he got a phone call from Daniel Kripper, a friend and fellow Argentine who was retiring as the rabbi of Aruba’s Beth Israel.
“He called me and said, ‘Baruch, what are you doing in Israel?’” Rabbi Zeilicovich said. “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 congregation again?’
“And I said, ‘Why not?’”
According to Richenella Wever, a member of the Beth Israel board, Rabbi Zeilicovich is a good fit for the synagogue’s diverse congregation. “His way of thinking, teaching and his ability to connect the Torah with daily 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 Curacao, settled in Aruba, where he founded the Aruba branch of the Dutch West Indies Company. Maduro paved the way for more immigrants, but the island’s Jewish population has always remained small. It now numbers about 100.
In 1956, the Dutch kingdom officially recognized the Jewish community of Aruba; Beth Israel was consecrated six years later. The synagogue calls itself a “Conservative egalitarian temple keeping Sephardic and Ashkenazic traditions.” A Chabad chapter on the island opened in 2013.
With a membership of just 50 local families and a few dozen overseas residents, Beth Israel has limited resources. A Dutch law stipulating that the government pay the salaries of clergy in Holland’s overseas territories helps the synagogue remain solvent.
“This is really unique,” Rabbi Zeilicovich said. “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 am an employee of the Crown of Holland,” he added with a laugh.
Rabbi Zeilicovich said the Aruban government has been highly supportive of the Jewish community. In 2010, it erected a life-sized bronze statue of Anne Frank in Queen Wilhelmina Park in downtown Oranjestad. “That means they have respect for the Jewish community,” he says. “And they are very sympathetic with us about the Holocaust.”
Rabbi Zeilicovich said that a typical Friday night Shabbat service attracts about 20 people, about one-third of whom are tourists. Some arrive on the many cruise ships that dock just a mile away from the synagogue; others stay at condos or at one of Aruba’s posh resorts.
If there aren’t enough worshippers for a minyan on Shabbat mornings, a Torah study group meets instead. The synagogue’s small sanctuary can hold 60 worshippers, and it usually is full for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur each fall.
“We are a friendly, welcoming congregation,” Rabbi Zeilicovich said. “We are family — mishpocha. When you come here, we try to make you feel that way.”
Indeed, a popular item in the synagogue’s small gift shop is a T-shirt imprinted with the words “Bon Bini Shalom.” Bon Bini means “welcome” in Papiamento, the Portuguese-based Creole language spoken in the Dutch Caribbean.
Rabbi Zeilicovich said that one of his priorities as the new rabbi is to improve the synagogue’s marketing efforts and revamp its website. He added that Aruba’s Jewish community often is overshadowed by the one in Curacao, Aruba’s Dutch neighbor to the east, which is home to the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Americas.
“We are behind in marketing,” he said. “And we understand we are missing a huge opportunity.”
For now, Rabbi Zeilicovich is enjoying his time in Aruba and can’t help but marvel at how his life has changed since his days as a rabbi in Medellin, when just getting from his home to the synagogue was a dangerous ordeal.
“I think about that and look to heaven and say, ‘God, thank you,’” he said.
JEWISH TELEGRAPHIC AGENCY