Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Around the Jewish World Costa Rican Shul Complex Draws Both Cheers and Jeers

August 6, 2004
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

This Rosh Hashanah, the Israeli-Zionist Center, Costa Rica’s most prominent synagogue, will welcome the new year in a new, spacious and — according to some observers — ostentatious new synagogue. The building, complete with bomb-safe walls and bulletproof windows, will greatly increase the visibility of Orthodox Jewry in this predominately Catholic country and, some say, may prove to bolster Jewish practice here.

But the synagogue complex, located on the western fringe of the city at a congested intersection that already is a source of rush hour angst, has also found critics both within and outside of the community.

“There already is a rebirth of Judaism in Costa Rica,” says Gustavo Prifer, president of the 2,500-member congregation, as he surveys construction crews scurrying to put the finishing touches on the 17,000-square-meter complex. “We have always had the faith but when one is given better facilities, it gr! ows.”

Still, not everyone’s a believer.

Critics within the membership of the center, which serves 90 percent of the country’s 3,000 Jews, refused to comment on the record, citing a fear of reprisal. But it is clear that the issue has strained internal relations and led the center to devote sizable portions of its bulletin, Hayom, to promoting the new site.

The complex has just 134 parking spots and, although many residents live nearby and will walk to services, security considerations have mandated opening just a single entrance to the shul on a road that is already crowded most of the day.

To date, talks among the community, area residents and the government on how to handle traffic flows at the new synagogue have failed to yield a solution.

Further aggravating some naysayers is the fact that the new complex, which will boast a community museum, activities areas and administrative facilities, will drive the center roughly $2.5 million into debt as it wor! ks to finish the $11 million project.

Many dissidents within the Je wish community and other locals disparagingly dismiss the buff-colored low-rise as the “Jewish mall,” a reference to the seemingly unending construction here of suburban malls.

The new synagogue will hold 1,000 people without any obstructed views, a marked improvement over the 50-year-old facility currently in use, which holds 600 worshipers and is poorly equipped for emergency evacuations and people with mobility difficulties.

The old building, located in a deteriorating part of this city’s crowded and crime-ridden downtown, has been sold to a Brazil-based Christian sect.

Though it has a greater seating capacity than its predecessor, the new synagogue — even when filled with scaffolding, dust and the noise of busy construction crews — has a distinctly more intimate feel.

When the buzz saws are silent and the hammering done, it apparently also will have improved acoustics. Unlike services at its predecessor, prayers in the new shul will not constantly be in! terrupted by noise from the unmuffled exhaust systems of passing busses that in the past have created a sanity-challenging roar.

Because it is an Orthodox synagogue, women will be seated on the second tier, but will find themselves much closer to the rabbi than they are at the current location, where the women’s balcony rings the synagogue’s outer extremes.

Part of the new shul’s walls and facade are covered in stone quarried near Jerusalem, one of the architectural highlights of the complex. Skylights in the exteriors are designed to cast a shadow in the form of the Star of David in entrances.

“The word to describe this project is ‘exquisite,’ ” construction manager Rudy Guerra said. “This synagogue is much more elegant, sober and inviting than any other in Latin America.”

And, although Costa Rica has thus far been exempt from the terrorist attacks that have affected Jewish communities worldwide — including Argentina and neighboring Panama — it is also on! e of the few synagogues built with terrorism in mind.

More than 15, 000 cubic meters of poured concrete were used in constructing the center, which is surrounded by a 20-inch-thick wall designed to resist bomb blasts. Metal sheeting protects the single exposed porch from snipers. Israeli security experts were consulted during construction of the shul, which Prifer admits “is a bunker.”

Such security measures are unusual in this peaceful country. Costa Rica dissolved its army in 1948 and is one of Latin America’s most stable democracies.

“We have to learn from others’ tragedies,” Prifer explained. “What happened twice in Argentina cannot be ignored.”

Still, with its price tag, size, and prominent location, the new synagogue continues to elicit protests. Some have expressed worries that it will serve as an obvious target for anti-Semitic attacks. The emphasis on security is also seen by some as an unfriendly statement.

“I see it as gasoline on the fire of anti-Semitism, though fortunately the fire is only a flickering candle here! ,” said U.S. Reform Rabbi Mike Holtzman, who recently finished a one-year contract with the local B’nai Israel temple. Although Holtzman, like most of the synagogue’s critics, had seen it only from the outside, he nevertheless called it “the most ostentatious private building created in recent years.”

Others find the $4,000 minimum price for purchasing rights to a single seat — and many seats sold for over $10,000 — equally ostentatious. This is particularly true, they say, in a country with an annual per capita income of under $4,000, and will only serve to reinforce the public perception that the Jewish community is wealthy.

Those concerns may help explain why rights to some 200 seats in the synagogue remained unsold just three months before its opening, although virtually every family with seats at the old facility has purchased seats at the new one.

Once open and running, site upkeep and debt servicing will continue to weigh on the community financially. Whi! le more than $6 million was raised through donations, staffing the sen ior citizen center and youth recreational facilities will further tax pocketbooks.

Prifer admits that construction was at one point slowed by financing troubles, which the construction company says caused about a three-month delay in finishing the job.

But community leaders hope that by adding attractions for local Jews beyond the new synagogue, like the centers for youth and the elderly, the center will once again become a focal point in the daily life of the increasingly assimilated community.

Special emphasis is being placed on attending to the growing aging sector within the community, many of whose ranks helped found the center shortly after emigrating from Poland in the 1930s. Emphasis will also be placed on attracting the grandchildren of the founders, who are as likely to want to attend a local soccer match as they are to want to go to shul.

“When people ask me ‘Why are you building these add-ons?’ my response is that when business is down you need to ! see how you improve it and Judaism worldwide is on the downturn,” Prifer explained. “The way to improve it is by providing the diverse facilities that it needs.”

Recommended from JTA