It’s a familiar story: Times are tough in Eastern Europe. The father makes his way across the ocean to America to try to build a better life for his family. He establishes himself, sends for the wife and kids, and they all struggle to make a living and adapt to a new culture and a new language. The difference is the new language is Spanish, and the America they came to is Central America — Costa Rica to be specific.
My husband and I were in Costa Rica for a few weeks escaping the Pittsburgh winter and getting to know the Jewish community. We spent Shabbat in several different places during our visit and ate at three different kosher restaurants. Our visit to the small Museum of the Jewish Community of Costa Rica filled in some blanks in our knowledge of local Jewish history.
Although the first Jews to come were Conversos fleeing the Inquisition, that group assimilated and left no Jewish traces. The first real wave of Jews came to Costa Rica in the 1920s and 1930s fleeing persecution and economic hardship in Eastern Europe, primarily Poland. They were peddlers, going door to door, knocking and selling. They were called Klappers, or Polacos, terms that are now used to mean any peddler. They built their first synagogue in 1930.
After World War II, Polish Holocaust survivors came to reunite with their relatives who had come earlier. (Almost the entire modern Costa Rican Jewish community has originated from one Polish town, Yelechov, aka Zelechow.) Close to 200 Holocaust survivors still live in San Jose, the capital.
The Jewish community thrived and is now 3,000 strong, the vast majority professionals or business owners, living in or around the capital, San Jose, and are financially successful.
In 2004, the community constructed a new facility, the Centro Israelita Sionista. Built of Jerusalem stone, Centro Israelita is the principal institution for the Jewish community of Costa Rica. It has offices in a vast compound encircled by a massive wall over 15 feet high. Behind that protective wall lies the huge and beautiful Shaarei Zion Synagogue, the museum of the Jewish community, the youth organization’s headquarters and activities, a senior center, a kosher restaurant and offices for all the other educational and social activities such as the women’s group WIZO, the cemetery and the Chevra Kadisha. There is also a women’s mikvah, a men’s mikvah and a utensils mikvah.
Though the synagogue and the rabbis are Orthodox, many congregants drive to shul on Shabbat. There are a handful of shomer Shabbat families, but the entire community of 3,000 comes for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services.
The Shabbat we were there, 50 men and 25 women came to daven. The services were in Hebrew and the rabbi’s talk was in Spanish. After services, we all sat down together to a sumptuous meal including bread, fish, salads, cholent, drinks, fruit and cake. Everyone schmoozed, paid attention to the children, relaxed and lingered together. The community was very warm and welcoming to us.
After Shabbat services at Centro Israelita, my husband and I took a stroll through the pleasant, tree-lined streets in the mild February temperature of San Jose. As we walked past a little house, we were startled to see a group of a half-dozen men sitting in the front yard looking like they had just stepped out of Meah Shaarim: black pants, white shirts, tzitzit over their shirts, black vests on top, long peyos, beards. When we stopped to ask who they were, they said, “Come in and meet our rabbi.”
We entered a small, very modest house, with no adornments on the walls and the only furniture in the main room being a large table surrounded with many chairs. Seated around the table were another half dozen or so men, dressed in a variety of styles, including the Meah Shaarim mode. At the head of the table was an older man with a white beard and peyos, wearing a shtreimel and speaking in a combination of Hebrew and Spanish. He switched to English when we came in.
One of the men motioned me to the back, where there was a simple curtain strung up. I walked past the men and behind the curtain, which separated the room from the backyard. A long table had been set up outdoors and about eight women were sitting around or tending to children or going in and out from farther back in the yard. They were all wearing long-sleeved tops, long skirts and head scarves. The table was stacked with siddurim and Tehillim in Spanish and Hebrew. I sat down, and we started to talk.
They explained that their rabbi spoke to the women (from the other side of the curtain) every Shabbat for an hour or more on the Torah portion. We talked about their head coverings (their rabbi ruled a woman had to wear two head coverings so they opted for scarves instead of a wig). Then they all took a break in the conversation to daven. They were careful about placing the holier book on top of the less holy book. As far as I could see, they were very careful about everything they did religiously. When they used Hebrew terms, the pronunciation was very Yiddish-Ashkenazi. They explained that their rabbi was a tzadik from Eastern Europe and they were learning Ashenazi orthodox.
Se’udah shelishit was meager; the building, the congregants and everything about the place read “poverty” similar to places we had seen in poor religious communities in Israel.
When I asked if they were born Jewish, I was astonished to hear that none of them was born Jewish: they were all native Costa Ricans who had undergone Orthodox conversion through a beth din consisting of their rabbi and two rabbis from Monsey, N.Y. The entire congregation was Costa Rican gerrim (converts) being trained to be haredim. Every Shabbat, they all stayed over in their rabbi’s house and ate all their Shabbat meals together there.
Just a few miles from Centro Israelita, in a nondescript house in a tony suburb, Chabad has a small Shabbat minyan. The sh’luchim have been in Costa Rica almost 20 years; their main activity is running a Jewish school. Friday night, the rabbi spoke in Hebrew, and Shabbat day in Spanish, because many of his congregants are Israeli. About a half dozen people stayed for the simple but adequate kiddush served outdoors in the back patio.
We saw but didn’t visit the one other synagogue in San Jose: B’nai Israel, affiliated with both the Reform and Conservative movements. It has a very small membership, the majority of whom are either ex-pats or Costa Rican men who have intermarried.
The last day we were in San Jose, eating lunch at the dairy restaurant in the shul compound, we met a former vice president of Costa Rica, Luis Lieberman, a traditional Jew who had come for mincha/maariv. He was a banker prior to running for public office. (He was the third Jew to be elected vice president.)
When I asked him if there was anti-Semitism in Costa Rica, he answered, in typical Jewish fashion, “Where isn’t there anti-Semitism?” But he hastened to point out, in the six months that he spent running for office, his religion only came up one time — and he was elected.
Lieberman’s family moved to Costa Rica from Poland before World War II. His grandfather was the first mohel in Costa Rica; he has come a long way from his immigrant ancestors who were looking for, and found, a better way of life.
Simone Shapiro can be reached at email@example.com.