Costa Rican shul complex draws both cheers and jeers

san jose, costa rica | 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 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 an 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-yard complex. “We have always had the faith, but when one is given better facilities, it grows.”

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.

To date, talks among the Jewish community, area residents and the government on how to handle traffic flow at the new synagogue have failed to yield a solution. The complex has just 134 parking places.

Further aggravating some nay-sayers 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 works to finish the $11 million project. Many dissidents within the Jewish community and other locals disparagingly dismiss the buff-colored low-rise as the “Jewish mall.”

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 worshippers 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 be interrupted constantly by noise from the unmuffled exhaust systems of passing buses.

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 one of the few synagogues built with terrorism in mind.

More than 15,000 cubic yards 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. While more than $6 million was raised through donations, staffing the senior citizen center and youth recreational facilities will further tax pocketbooks.

“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.’