Arrivals: El Rabino

Rabbi Dr. Mordechai Maarabi pulls up roots from Argentina and Uruguay to settle in Ra’anana.

Moti Maarabi 521 (photo credit: Arrivals: El Rabino )
Moti Maarabi 521
(photo credit: Arrivals: El Rabino )
Rabbi Dr. Mordechai Maarabi left a prestigious rabbinical post in Uruguay to come to Ra’anana in 2009. He, wife Vivi and daughter Tamar happily reunited with their close family – the Maarabis’ two married children who live nearby.
Moti grew up in a Syrian neighborhood of the well-established Sephardi community of Buenos Aires, Argentina. His grandparents had emigrated there from Damascus just before World War I. After school each day, Maarabi attended a Hebrew school that followed the oral Sephardi tradition.
“To my regret, the Sephardim had no Jewish high school, but my mother enrolled me at the Chaim Weizmann Zionist High School,” he says. After graduation, Maarabi attended a Hebrew Teachers College, where all studies were in Hebrew. After three years of study and practical work in elementary schools he returned to Chaim Weizmann as high school teacher and administrator.
He ambitiously sought out a broadbased career that would synthesize academic and religious studies and community involvement. Consequently, he attended medical school near Buenos Aires in the mornings, taught in the afternoons and continued yeshiva studies at an evening seminary. In his mid-20s he met and married Vivianna, daughter of an Ashkenazi family. Vivi subsequently completed her MSc in biochemistry and pharmacy.
IN 1980, just before his marriage and graduation from medical school, Maarabi and his study partner were summarily arrested in a cafe and jailed by the military junta, the dictatorship of Argentina. “Both of us were bearded,” he said, “which marked you as a leftist.” They were released after four days of disappearance only because the Jewish community agitated on their behalf. The police warned Maarabi to keep quiet after his release, “Or you won’t stay alive.” Shortly afterwards, when driving in town, he was stopped and harassed by the junta and again threatened with death. Such was the reign of terror at that time.
In the early 1980s, when Maarabi was already school principal, the school board sponsored his trip to Jerusalem for further Jewish studies.
Oldest daughter Meital was born there. After two years a severe economic crisis in Argentina precipitated the Maarabi return.
In the afternoons Moti continued as school principal to support his family, even when he resumed his medical studies at the neuropsychiatric hospital of Buenos Aires in 1985. For five years he specialized in general psychiatry. “I worked in that field for some years until I found my particular niche, drug rehabilitation,” he explains. “I took further courses in drug and alcohol rehabilitation from 1995 on. I was also campus rabbi at a branch of Bar-Ilan University and directed the Bible Studies Department there. It was a wonderful, challenging time.
“When I met Rabbi Eitan Eckstein, who directed the Retourno rehab center in Israel, we began collaborating. In March 1995, a Jewish rehabilitation center opened for those ensnared in that destructive web. I worked day and night to provide professional and economic support to people in the rehab groups, some of whom died of AIDS.
Every Jew who reached us gradually joined in with community life. This provided a spiritual dimension they had lacked till then – quite moving and amazing. I left only when I became chief rabbi of Uruguay in 2002.”
Their time in Uruguay was a formative one. In Montevideo, Maarabi lent an ear to Becky Sabah, a Sephardi woman who was completely paralyzed and dreamt of organizing a group for fellow handicapped Jews.
The Or group formed two years later with over 60 participants aged 13 to 65. They met regularly on synagogue premises for study groups and vocational workshops that gave their lives new meaning.
Maarabi says of Uruguay: “The connection has remained and even strengthened. We put down many roots in that warm and loving community.
Seven years of work, dedication, education and close congregational ties made it a most enriching experience.
Nowadays many Uruguayan Jews find their way to Israel and to Ra’anana. It is wonderful to keep in touch, to pray together and study together as in the old days. This year was very special because Avital Sharansky arranged for the Or group to visit Israel and tour here for 10 days. We danced together and prayed at the Kotel.
When I came to the Holy Land, the dream of many years came true. We are happy despite all the difficulties of adjustment and finding work.”
Vivi now works at Meir Medical Center in Kfar Saba as a microbiologist.
Moti is known as el Rabino, honored rabbi, among his congregants after founding the small but lively Spanishspeaking congregation Torah V’haim.
His work now centers primarily on Jewish education and outreach. He has written and published four books of Bible study in Spanish and directs a conversion course for Spanish-speakers in Ra’anana. He is also a volunteer counselor for psychologists handling cases of addiction.
“We feel good here,” he says. “Whoever’s eyes are sufficiently open can see the bitter reality of every place in the Diaspora – however affluent and comfortable.
Whoever has experienced the anti-Semitic hatred that lurks all over will discover how to relate to the Land of Israel. We love Israel very deeply and thank the Lord that we have reached this day.” ■