Argentine Jews reclaim desecrated synagogue that housed drug-fueled raves
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'I truly believe that God helped us'

Argentine Jews reclaim desecrated synagogue that housed drug-fueled raves

After 20 years of neglect, one of the oldest Jewish houses of worship in Buenos Aires is returned to the community thanks to a prolonged effort by a local rabbi

  • Rabbi Shneur Mizrahi, left, helps Ricardo Aisen pray with phylacteries in the newly reclaimed synagogue in Buenos Aires. (Daniel Silicaro)
    Rabbi Shneur Mizrahi, left, helps Ricardo Aisen pray with phylacteries in the newly reclaimed synagogue in Buenos Aires. (Daniel Silicaro)
  • Exterior of the newly-reclaimed synagogue in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of La Boca. (Daniel Silicaro)
    Exterior of the newly-reclaimed synagogue in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of La Boca. (Daniel Silicaro)
  • Anti-Semitic graffiti drawn onto the walls of the newly-reclaimed synagogue in Buenos Aires that for years had housed raves thrown by squatters. (Daniel Silicaro)
    Anti-Semitic graffiti drawn onto the walls of the newly-reclaimed synagogue in Buenos Aires that for years had housed raves thrown by squatters. (Daniel Silicaro)
  • Rabbi Shneur Mizrahi of Buenos Aires prays in the newly-reclaimed synagogue in the Argentine capital's La Boca neighborhood. (Daniel Silicaro)
    Rabbi Shneur Mizrahi of Buenos Aires prays in the newly-reclaimed synagogue in the Argentine capital's La Boca neighborhood. (Daniel Silicaro)
  • A pair of phylacteries in the newly-reclaimed synagogue in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of La Boca. (Daniel Silicaro)
    A pair of phylacteries in the newly-reclaimed synagogue in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of La Boca. (Daniel Silicaro)
  • Interior of a newly-reclaimed synagogue in Buenos Aires. (Daniel Silicaro)
    Interior of a newly-reclaimed synagogue in Buenos Aires. (Daniel Silicaro)
  • Anti-Semitic caricatures of dead Jews assaulting a woman are drawn onto the walls of the newly-reclaimed synagogue in Buenos Aires that for years had housed raves thrown by squatters. (Daniel Silicaro)
    Anti-Semitic caricatures of dead Jews assaulting a woman are drawn onto the walls of the newly-reclaimed synagogue in Buenos Aires that for years had housed raves thrown by squatters. (Daniel Silicaro)

BUENOS AIRES — After more than 20 years of neglect, one of the Argentinian capital’s oldest synagogues has been returned to the community that founded it. Dating back to 1907, the synagogue is located in the neighborhood of La Boca, where most of Buenos Aires’s first Jewish immigrants settled.

The original facade has been preserved nearly intact, with the exception of the graffiti covering the synagogue’s exterior. Inside, sordid anti-Semitic images are painted on the walls throughout.

The congregation was shuttered shortly after the death of its rabbi, 20 years ago. Soon after, it was taken over by squatters who desecrated it, creating an underground club called House of the Stars, presumably in mocking reference to the Star of David. The club regularly held rave parties with music, alcohol, and drugs.

“I used to walk down the street and simply couldn’t believe what I saw. I started to investigate, and it turned out to be that big parties were being held in this holy place,” said Rabbi Shneur Mizrahi, who heads a nearby Chabad house.

Neighbors, as well as members of the local Jewish community, often argued with the new occupants, but were threatened with violence.

Exterior of the newly-reclaimed synagogue in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of La Boca. (Daniel Silicaro)

“Some younger Jewish boys told me they saw swastikas and pictures of Hitler inside the property. A non-Jewish woman also brought us photos clearly showing what was happening there. We had to do something,” Mizrahi said.

Inside the synagogue, Mizrahi showed The Times of Israel the space directly in front of the holy ark where rock and punk bands used to play. The “club” also had two VIP sections — one just behind the ark, and one upstairs in the women’s section.

Mizrahi said that he filed reports with police and local prosecutors and received no answer. Last Hanukkah, Mizrahi organized a celebration in the neighborhood park and invited Carolina Romero, president of La Boca’s communal board. He explained the situation and asked for help.

Entering the synagogue for the first time, Romero was moved.

“When I heard the story of this place I knew I couldn’t let that happen in my community, so I got involved. There are lots of occupied properties, but this one has special meaning,” Romero told The Times of Israel.

A pair of phylacteries in the newly-reclaimed synagogue in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of La Boca. (Daniel Silicaro)

Romero said that she personally handed written complaints to members of the city government and followed up regularly in order to expedite the investigation.

“I truly believe that God helped us; this recovery is not coincidental,” she said.

Police officers finally broke into the property on July 6, the same day that Mizrahi went to pray for the synagogue in New York City at the grave of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic sect.

Ricardo Aisen, left, with Rabbi Shneur Mizrahi, in the newly-reclaimed synagogue in Buenos Aires. (Daniel Silicaro)

As The Times of Israel spoke to Mizrahi inside the newly reclaimed building, Ricardo Aisen came over and introduced himself. The 71-year-old man used to attend this synagogue as a child. After 40 years, this was his first time back.

“I first entered this shul when I was 8 years old, and when I turned 13, I celebrated my bar mitzvah here. I can close my eyes and remember everything,” Aisen said, using the Yiddish term for synagogue.

Tears rolled down his face as he recalled, “This was an Ashkenazi synagogue and upstairs there was a Sephardic service, with lots of people. My best memories were during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as the whole Jewish community in La Boca gathered to pray.”

Aisen pointed out his father’s regular prayer spot and remembered how he would stress the importance of keeping Jewish tradition.

Anti-Semitic graffiti with Nazi imagery drawn onto the walls of the newly-reclaimed synagogue in Buenos Aires that for years had housed raves thrown by squatters. (Daniel Silicaro)

Walking through the property, Aisen couldn’t believe the extent of the damage.

“We Jews must be strong and have faith,” he said. “This recovery shows how we can resist the tough blows and will always recover from pain.”

Before leaving, Mizrahi helped Aisen put on the phylacteries, and together with nine other men formed a small religious quorum for the afternoon prayers.

According to Rabbi Tzvi Grunblatt, director of Chabad-Lubavitch in Argentina, this is the second synagogue the community was able to recover in the neighborhood. Mizrahi had to go to great lengths in order to do so, Grunblatt said.

“We nearly lost hope because the process wasn’t moving forward, but finally after a year and a half the eviction was carried out,” he said.

The morning after the building was cleared, members of the Jewish community held morning prayers in the synagogue.

“I felt that after years of nightly parties and anti-Semitic activity, we were illuminating the souls of people that used to pray here,” Grunblatt said.

Graffiti marks the wall of a newly-reclaimed synagogue in Buenos Aires next to a podium used for prayers. (Daniel Silicaro)

Grunblatt told The Times of Israel that the movement is considering a number of options for the building. It will remain a synagogue and could potentially house a museum with a permanent exhibition on Jewish immigration to Argentina. It could also be used to help lodge Israeli backpackers in need of a temporary place to stay.

“This story reminds me of what Chabad-Lubavitch did in the Soviet Union in the 1960s and ’70s, when a number of synagogues previously used as clubs or theaters were reclaimed,” Grunblatt said. “The message is that Jewish history will never be lost. People can occupy our properties or even desecrate them, but if we persist there is nothing we won’t recover.”

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