Story and photo by Marius Bremmer
As a graduated psychologist, Rabbi Alberto “Baruch” Zeilicovitch first worked as a teacher, then completed rabbinical education in Buenos Aires and Israel. “My first pulpit was in Medellín, Colombia.” He has only just arrived when he already must lead a funeral of a 20-year-old boy, killed in a disco by drug cartels.
Zeilicovitch even has bodyguards with him when he goes to synagogue. When it becomes too dangerous, the synagogue council asks him to leave, but Baruch stays. “As a rabbi, you don’t leave your cold heart out in the cold in times of fear!” After another funeral of a young member, his synagogue sends him to Aruba to recover. “I immediately fell in love with this paradise, and I have been on holiday there for all 32 years since!” After having been a rabbi in Bogota, Puerto Rico, Texas, and New Jersey, Zeilicovitch becomes Professor of Psychoanalytic Psychology in the Colombian capital Bogota.
“When I heard last year that the Aruban kille (congregation) was vacant, I suspended my retirement and signed here for three years.”
In colonial times, the Netherlands paid the salaries of the two Protestant preachers on the island. It remained that way in the ABC-islands also after The Netherlands skipped this subsidy for churches. The islands later even extended this subsidy to eight Roman Catholic pastors and the rabbi, who is therefore “ambtenaar”.
Baptism in the Jordan
Zeilicovitch has excellent contacts with Reverend Jan Rinzema, the Protestant minister in Oranjestad. “I have been in his service a few times; I even spoke there!” He takes a photo out of his pocket and points proudly: “Look, that’s where you see me, in the church!” Almost fatherly in tone: “The better we get to know each other, the less prejudice there will be.”
The two clergy have previously organized interfaith discussion groups and Rinzema attended the Holocaust commemoration this year. Zeilicovitch previously led group trips to Israel, where half of the participants were Jew and the other half Christian.
“We visited holy places of both religions. I remember that one of the Christians choose spontaneously for baptism in the river Jordan. The Christians were dancing, and we Jews were clapping and singing ‘Mazzeltov’ (congratulations)!”
Outside Oranjestad, near the large hotels, is the Jewish centre of the Chabad movement. Rabbi Zeilicovitch is not really on speaking terms with these Hasidim who carry out mission among secular Jews. “They have their own Chabad House and are not part of our community.” He specially has theological problems with the view of the Aruban Chabadniks on the status of Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the famous leader of this ultra-Orthodox movement from Brooklyn (NY), who died in 1994.
He shows a business card of Chabad Aruba with the portrait of the Rebbe and the text: “Long live our master, teacher, Rebbe, King Moshiach, forever!” Zeilicovitch shakes his head: “I do not believe that he will come back to life one day and turn out to be the Messiah after all. My opinion is: We do not yet know the Messiah, we still expect Him!” Within Chabad worldwide, the theological view on the late Rebbe from Brooklyn varies.
The rabbi briefly shows the shul, an intimate space that can accommodate 120 visitors. In the front are flags of Aruba, the Netherlands and Israel. On both sides of the room, engraved in copper, are the names of the members of the congregation who have died, almost all of them recognizably Ashkenazi names such as Gelbstein, Kan, Goldenberg, Gandelman, Tauber, Hirschberg, or Friedman.
Ike Cohen is also included, the Rotterdam butcher who survived the war by hiding and then pioneered the tourist market in Aruba and became very wealthy in trade.
There is also a meeting room with white tables and white plastic garden chairs for chatting after the service and for parties. In the back is a “Judaica Shop” with religious objects, souvenirs from Israel and recently also T-shirts with the print “Aruba stands with Israel.”
At the exit, Zeilicovitch shows himself to be a real rabbi by sharing some life wisdom: “You know what? Here in Aruba, there is a square coin. You do not see that anywhere else in the world, do you? You would think that this unusual coin has no value, but it does! It is the same with people. Different people also have value. That is what the square Aruban coin wants to give us…”