Jewish life thrives in this tiny Central American republic
Shabbat in Pittsburgh: Do you look out the window thinking, “Nineteen degrees, the streets are full of ice and snow, the roads are slushy and slippery, and with the wind chill it’s 8 degrees. Do I really want to go to shul?”
If facing weeks of this gets you thinking of a warmer climate, let me suggest an alternative to the crowded beaches, overpriced hotels, and kitschy cafes of South Florida: Costa Rica.
Costa Rica is a Central American country situated between Nicaragua on the north, Panama on the south, the Pacific Ocean on the west and the Caribbean on the east. At 10 degrees above the equator, Costa Rica has a mild climate and, during our winter, warm, sunny days.
In this officially Catholic country, several thousand Jews found a welcoming environment and made it their home. A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to spend Shabbat in Costa Rica.
The first wave of Jewish emigrants came to Costa Rica from Eastern Europe in 1925 to escape poverty and discrimination. The second wave consisted of Holocaust survivors who fled Poland, most of them to reunite with their families who came years earlier. The main Jewish community is in the capital city, San Jose, and belongs to the Centro Israelita Sionista de Costa Rica. Founded in 1937, the Centro Israelita is the administrator as well as the physical location for most of the Jewish religious, social and educational activities and services. The Centro owns a large property on a main thoroughfare adjoining the upscale neighborhood of Rohrmoser, where many foreign embassies are located. On this property is housed the
Orthodox synagogue, the Haim Weizmann School (preschool through high school, and trilingual — Spanish, Hebrew and English), the museum of the history of Jews of Costa Rica, a small dairy café, and, behind it all, the Jewish cemetery.
Centro Israelita also runs the mikvah, chevrah kadisha, sports club, youth group, women’s group, several Zionist groups, center for the Jewish elderly and the Women’s International Zionist Organization (WIZO), and supervises kashrut. Like many other countries in Central and South America, this is the center of Jewish life.
Security is tight at Jewish sites throughout Latin America, primarily due to the 1994 bombing of the Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires, Argentina. If you didn’t know what you were looking for, it would have been easy to walk past the CIS grounds without recognizing it (as I did): surrounding them is a high wall with no signs of any kind on it. There is a door and a sliding gate for admitting cars. Several security guards stand outside.
To be admitted to the synagogue for Shabbat, I had to send a copy of my passport prior to my arrival, the name of my home synagogue and other information identifying myself. When I arrived at the entrance on Shabbat, the guards checked my name on a list, flipped through the papers and compared my passport photo to the person they were looking at. After they cleared me, I walked through the door and into another world.
Once inside this high wall, I faced a broad open expanse of grass, trees, paths and buildings. Dominating the view and straight ahead was a massive synagogue built of gleaming Jerusalem stone with nine pillars in the shape of a menorah. To my right was the museum; to my left was the cafeteria. The outdoor walls were lined with art, each piece having a sign saying who donated it. A large memorial to the Jews who perished in the Holocaust was along one outside walkway. Far to the right, and slightly downhill, was the school building. Everywhere there were graceful trees, colorful flowers and outdoor sculpture done by Jewish Costa Rican artists. There is a sense of spacious regality, man-made beauty and natural beauty intertwined. Everything is new and fresh, the complex having been built in 2004.
I strolled down the path to the tall, glass synagogue doors, admiring the art and the grounds. Inside, the synagogue is impressive: new, tasteful, spacious and attractive. The women’s balcony is up a broad staircase, with stadium seating that allows for a full view of the bima and men’s section below. Acoustics are excellent. All siddurim and chumashim are in Hebrew and Spanish: they daven Nusach Sfard. Services are in Hebrew, but the rabbi’s talk is in Spanish. I found the women to be friendly and welcoming. There were about 150 to 200 people there, though the building easily holds 1,000, the amount they usually have for the High Holy Days.
After services, the congregation sat down together in the large social hall for a full kiddush: bread, salads, side dishes, hot meat cholent, drinks, fruit and cake. Though the majority of the community came from one village in Poland, I met young people who were born in Costa Rica, elderly people who had moved there in their youth, people who had escaped Venezuela, people who had fled Cuba during the early Castro years, and people who had left Argentina or other countries in South America. Costa Rica became a refuge for them. Many speak Hebrew, have family in Israel, or have sent their children or grandchildren to Israel for a year. Many also speak English. The rabbi and his wife are from Mexico; the youth group’s Aish rabbi is from Mexico; his wife is from Russia.
At this kiddush, there was also a Jewish tour group of about 15. There are often visitors from the United States or other countries.
After a relaxed, unhurried kiddush meal, the rabbi gave a lively, interactive class on the parshah for an hour, bringing in many points from the Gemara as well. About 30 people stayed for that, while others went off to daven mincha. Afterward, families strolled home leisurely, while others were picked up by car.
Sunday morning, I satisfied the other basic needs of Jewish life — I sat down to a great corned beef sandwich at the kosher deli/bakery. A few blocks away, at the little kosher grocery, I picked up a bottle of wine and a package of cheese. As is true in the states, other than meat, cheese, bread and wine, most of what you need to eat kosher can be found at the local supermarkets.
Costa Rica has proven to be a hospitable home for Jews and Jewish life. The country’s vice president is Jewish and Jews have been successful economically. Nowadays we are escaping the bitter cold of winter, not the persecution of the past. American Jews go to Costa Rica for the pristine beaches, smoldering volcanoes, sparkling waterfalls, and rain forests bustling with wildlife. But while you are there, if you need to drop in to shul for a yahrzeit, pick up a hot pastrami sandwich, or learn a blatt Gemara, you can satisfy your Jewish needs in Costa Rica.