ORANJESTAD, Aruba (JTA) — One of Alberto Zeilicovich’s first duties as a Conservative rabbi was to officiate the funeral of a 20-year-old congregant, murdered by a drug cartel while enjoying a night out with his friends at a disco.
It was the late 1980s in Medellin, Colombia, and 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,” 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 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 would ultimately result in the other bookend of his career: Zeilicovich recently came out of retirement to begin a three-year contract as the rabbi of Beth Israel Synagogue, a small synagogue on the Dutch island of Aruba in the southern Caribbean Sea. He had visited the island at least once a year for the past 32 years.
“First, the people are very friendly,” he says 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, located in the island’s capital city of Oranjestad, is not affiliated with any movement of Judaism 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 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 he 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 says. “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.”
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.
Following his six years in Medellin, Zeilicovich moved to a synagogue in Bogota, the capital city of Colombia, before rabbinical stints in Puerto Rico, Texas and most recently New Jersey, where he announced his retirement from Temple Beth Sholom in Fair Lawn in late 2020.
Zeilicovich and his wife Graciela had moved to 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?’ 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, Zeilicovich has been a good fit with 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’s now 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.” In addition to Beth Israel, there is a Chabad chapter on the island that 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 salaries of clergy in Holland’s overseas territories be paid by the government helps the synagogue remain 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 am an employee of the Crown of Holland,” he added with a laugh.
Zeilicovich says the Aruban government has been highly supportive of the Jewish community, even erecting a life-sized bronze statue in 2010 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.”
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 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 prayer quorum of 10 on Saturday mornings, a Torah study group meets instead. The synagogue’s small sanctuary can hold 60 worshippers, and is normally full for the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur each fall.
“We are a friendly, welcoming congregation,” Zeilicovich says. “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.
Zeilicovich says one of his priorities as the new rabbi is to improve the synagogue’s marketing efforts and revamp its website. He adds that Aruba’s Jewish community often is overshadowed by Curacao, its Dutch neighbor to the east that 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, 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.’”
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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.
Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary
By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”
Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)
Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station
This is a developing story.
(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.
An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.
Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.
The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.
The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.
Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.
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