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Bringing Spirituality to Prisoners: Jail Synagogue Opens in Argentina

May 31, 2006
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A synagogue has opened inside a prison in Buenos Aires. Sefer Chaim, or Book of Life, the tiny, butter-colored synagogue, is in the Villa Devoto Federal Penitentiary Service Unit 2.

It is believed to be the first prison synagogue in Latin America, according to Argentine Jewish officials.

Located in the jail’s third floor, the synagogue — modestly decorated with two flickering lights and three tiny windows — marks a commitment to Judaism in Argentina.

Until its inauguration Monday, some of the 20 Jewish prisoners of Devoto, which has 2,056 prisoners, used to meet with a Jewish seminarian in the Catholic chapel.

The Marshall T. Meyer Rabbinical Seminar and AMIA, Argentina’s central Jewish institution, promoted the initiative with the support of the Federal Penitentiary Service.

The three institutions designed the project four months ago.

“There was a prejudgment that we were going to find a recalcitrant Penitentiary Service. Instead, the receptivity was enormous and sincere,” said AMIA’s director of social programs, Gregorio Spivak.

Hugo Soza, the national director of the Penitentiary Service, told JTA the project was immediately welcomed.

“Prisoners strongly pursue a link with their inner selves. And inside the prison, tolerance among different religions is usually better respected that in the outside society,” Soza said.

Some 50 people passed through 11 prison doors and stood in the small room for the traditional Jewish welcoming service.

Several Argentine officials showed up, including Argentina’s secretary of religion, Guillermo Oliveri, and Penitentiary Service officials, as well as AMIA’s president, Luis Grynwald, and the president of the Rabbinical Seminary, Mario Ringler.

They all toasted to pluralism.

“I am so touched. We are demonstrating how able we are to share life in peace,” Grynwald said.

The idea for the synagogue was launched two years ago when a Jewish rabbinical student, Daniel Goverchesky, began visiting his coreligionists in federal prisons.

According to Argentine law, every prisoner has the right to two hours per week with a spiritual leader.

Goverchesky eventually established contact with most of Jewish prisoners in Buenos Aires. He says the prisoners use their Jewish identity for emotional support.

“Among Jews, there is a strong feeling of belonging,” Goverchesky said.

Six Jewish prisoners carried the Torah for the ceremony, singing Hebrew songs.

Although the prisoners welcome the idea of receiving challah for Shabbat and matzah for Passover — projects which are in the works — they appeared to be most comforted by the synagogue’s opening.

“Inside this building, what I miss most is affection. And that is what I expect to find in the synagogue,” a prisoner who gave his name as Osvaldo told JTA.

Osvaldo, 60, has served four years of an eight-year sentence.

“This synagogue is a starting point for Jewish prisoners,” he said. “It is really comforting to be with other Jews.”

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