The Jewish Traveler: Costa Rica
This Central American nation nestled between two oceans and blessed with green hills and lush rainforests has welcomed Jews in successive waves of immigration.
On his fourth and final voyage to the New World in 1502, Christopher Columbus landed in Costa Rica, ushering in nearly three centuries of Spanish colonial rule. The Spaniards named the country “Rich Coast” in the hopes of finding gold. Unfortunately for them, they did not. However, in modern times, droves of visitors have discovered the country’s rich natural beauty.
Wedged between the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Caribbean Sea to the east, Costa Rica is a verdant paradise luring 1.2 million tourists annually to its rainforests, active volcanoes, pristine forests, breathtaking beaches, pre-Colombian artifacts and Spanish colonial ruins.
Jewish travelers to Costa Rica discover a tropical Garden of Eden, a haven for environmentalists, adventurers, thrills seekers and spiritualists—and a place where Jews have found refuge, forming a vibrant community that thrives within this solidly Catholic nation.
Jewish history here is a relatively recent one, characterized largely by the migration of a people fleeing religious and political persecution or economic hardship. The exodus to Costa Rica can be divided into roughly three distinct waves.
Although not much is known about the earliest settlers—and what is known is laced with a bit of mythology—it is believed that the country’s first Jews were conversos, arriving here in the 16th and 17th centuries. The second group was made up of Sefardic merchants from Curaçao, Jamaica, Panama and the Caribbean who came in the 19th century, themselves descendants of those Spanish and Portuguese Jews who had found refuge in the Netherlands or fled the Portuguese conquest of Dutch Brazil. These early Jewish pioneers lived in the Central Valley, mixing with the larger society, intermarrying and assimilating, eventually abandoning their observance of Judaism altogether.
A new Jewish community was founded in Costa Rica in the early 1930’s (although some Jews had arrived following World War I) by Ashkenazi Jews fleeing Hitler’s Europe. In fact, most Jewish Costa Ricans today trace their history to a single Polish village, Zelechow. When they arrived in the country, they were called “Polacos.” Although a pejorative, the name was preferable to the more common slurs “Judeos” or “Israelitas,” and today Polaco means salesman in colloquial Costa Rican Spanish. Most of these Polish Jews worked as door-to-door salesmen. Transporting their wares on ox carts earned them the additional sobriquet “Klappers,” most likely because of the clacking of the cart’s wheels.
These Jews built Costa Rica’s first synagogue, the Orthodox Shaarei Zion, in 1933 in the capital of San José.
Despite the specter of anti-Semitism that emerged in the late 1930’s and 1940’s—largely the result of nationalism—Jews coexisted with the dominant Catholic majority with few problems. But the two faiths have only recently begun reaching out to one another directly. In November 2005, on the anniversary of the Nostra Aetate, the 1965 Vatican document that repudiated the charge of deicide and sought to mend the Church’s relationship with Jews, the hierarchy of Costa Rica’s Catholic Church visited the Orthodox synagogue, reportedly the first visit of its kind in the country.
On a political level, Costa Rica has long had close ties with Israel. In 1948, it was one of the first countries to vote at the United Nations for Israeli statehood. Until last summer, Costa Rica and El Salvador maintained embassies in Jerusalem, though they have been relocated to Tel Aviv.
In recent years, a fourth wave of Jewish immigration has boosted the local population, largely composed of the growing number of expatriate American retirees who are moving to Costa Rica as well as a number of Israeli transplants settling here and starting businesses. The economic upheavals and political instability in Argentina and Venezuela have also brought Jews from those countries.
With an estimated population of 2,500 to 3,000, Jews are active members in all areas of society from business to politics to academia and the arts.
Most Jews reside in San José and its growing sprawl of western suburbs, such as Santa Ana and Escazu, and they identify themselves as Orthodox—keeping kosher at home but driving to Shabbat services. A majority of Jewish students attend the Orthodox Haim Weizmann Comprehensive School from preschool through secondary school (011-506-231-5566; email@example.com), where instruction is in Spanish and Hebrew. Following graduation, it is customary for students to spend a year in Israel.
Founded in 1930, Centro Israelita Sionista de Costa Rica (located off the Carretera a Pavos in San José; 506-520-1013;www.centroisraelita.com) is the oldest and largest Jewish resource in the country. Often referred to as the “country club,” it is responsible for administering most of the community’s activities and religious life. Under Centro Israelita’s banner is the Orthodox synagogue, Women’s International Zionist Organization (WIZO), B’nai B’rith, La Sociedad de Damas Israelitas de Beneficencia (an aid society for Jewish and non-Jewish Costa Ricans), youth groups and a social and sports club. The Centro publishes a monthly newsletter called Hayom.
The Jewish scene has been expanding and changing in recent years, influenced largely by Americans who have moved to Costa Rica. In 1989, the Reform Congregation B’nei Israel was opened on Carretera vieja a Escazú (506-231-5243; www.bnei-israel.org). There is little interaction between B’nei Israel members and the Orthodox community, mainly due to differences of halakha. However, they joined together in April 2006 in an interfaith event with the Episcopal Conference of Costa Rica.
Chabad of Costa Rica is located in San José on Del Banco Cuscatlan Carretera a Pavas (506-296-6565;www.chabadcostarica.com). It runs a synagogue and a Hebrew day school; offers adult-education classes; and supervises a kosher bed and breakfast, the Oneg Shabbath in Rohrmoser, a San José suburb (506-394-9048; onegshabbath@ yahoo.com). Chabad’s Rabbi Hersh Spalter, who moved to Costa Rica in 1987, is largely credited with sparking a kashrut revival within the community and increasing availability of kosher food.
The Lookstein Center of Bar-Ilan University runs the Hebrew Cultural Center in Rohrmoser (506-231-0920;www.centroculturalhebreo.com), offering classes on Jewish culture and traditions, Hebrew language and philosophy and the study of Kabbala.
Costa Rica is better known for its natural beauty than its cultural institutions, yet places of Jewish interest both underscore the community’s place in Costa Rican society as well as the lure of the country overall.
In 2004, the Centro Israelita completed construction on a gleaming new facility. Built of Jerusalem stone and local materials, the airy center houses the 1,000-seat Shaarei Zion Synagogue. The modern house of worship features separate seating for women in the balcony, a wood-beamed ceiling, a wooden Torah Ark with blue curtain and a central bima. A smaller sanctuary is used for Friday night and Saturday services. There are three mikves (for women, men and a smaller one for dishes); a senior center; and two kosher restaurants, one dairy and one meat.
Last year the Centro unveiled the Museo de la Communidad Judeo de Costa Rica, dedicated to local Jewish history. The museum displays ritual objects—such as a set of brit mila implements—brought to Costa Rica from Poland as well as those created here, photos of settlers, vintage passports and some of the Klappers’ original ox carts.
Erected on the side of a retaining wall at the Centro, the Yad Vashem Memorial was built in cooperation with Yad Vashem: The Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem. At the center of the memorial is a Magen David encasing an eternal flame. To the left of the star, names of concentration camps are etched into brick slabs in German and Polish, and to the right, the camp names appear in Hebrew.
The community cemetery is also located on the Centro’s grounds, behind a stone wall adorned with a plaque listing the names of Holocaust victims whose descendants have ties to Costa Rican Jewry.
Works by Jewish Costa Rican artists Jacquie Boruchowitz, Ana Wien and Israel Zonzinski are on view throughout the Centro. The trio’s art, dealing with Jewish, spiritual, biblical and secular and Latin American themes, has also been shown in the United States and Israel.
There are a number of cultural sights in the capital, mostly downtown, where the Jewish community first established itself in the older neighborhoods of La Pitahaya, Don Bosco and Barrio México. The structure that served as the community’s first synagogue, the earliest incarnation of Shaarei Zion, is still standing at Avenida 5a, Calle 648. It now houses a church. The synagogue’s original Ark is displayed at the Centro’s museum.
Costa Rica’s Legislative Assembly meets in the Spanish colonial-style National Congress Building in central San José. Construction began in 1937 but was halted during the war years because the materials were coming from Europe. Costa Rica has boasted two Jewish vice presidents, Rebecca Greenspan and Luis Frishman. And earlier this year, Clara Zomer and Masha Ofelia Taitelbaum won seats in the assembly.
Jewish playwright and author Samuel Rovinski is considered one of the country’s foremost literary figures. Currently, he is the director of the Teatro Nacional, the heart of Costa Rica’s cultural scene. The Renaissance-style theater itself is an architectural gem, built in 1897 at the height and wealth of the nation’s coffee barons and located on Avenida 2, Calles 3/5 (506-221-5341).
As for the visual arts, Helen Broide, a member of the Centro, owns and runs the Galería Alternativa (Condominio Industrial de Pavas; 506-232-8500), an art gallery representing Costa Rican artists.
Most travelers to Costa Rica come to experience its natural beauty; it is a delight for adventurers and naturalists. Since the 1990’s, the country has been at the forefront of the ecotourism movement. Now there is a growing trend of trips geared specifically toward the Jewish traveler, offering ways to explore the natural wonders of the country and Judaism at the same time.
Costa Rican Adventures (www.costaricanadventures.com), started by Jewish siblings Stephen and Lisa Brooks, was one of the first ecotourism outfits in the country. Stephen, an environmentalist, had launched the Punta Mona Center in 1995, a 30-acre organic farm and educational retreat dedicated to sustainable living on Costa Rica’s southern Caribbean coast. Lisa, a Jewish educator from California, joined him shortly thereafter. Among the variety of ecotourism and adventure trips they run are popular tours with Jewish singles and teens.
Kosher Expeditions (800-923-2645; www.kosherexpeditions.com) offers adventure travel including hikes and cruises along with kosher meals and an optional lecture series on the Jews of Costa Rica. The company also organizes Passover vacation programs.
Inward Bound (www.ib.org) works with Chabad of Costa Rica to organize kosher adventure holidays, including a Costa Rica for Couples tour.
Los Angeles-based Rabbi Nachum Shifren, aka the Surfing Rabbi (310-877-1482; www.surfingrabbi.com), runs a camp with five-star kosher cuisine, hiking, daily classes on Jewish texts and surfing lessons. There is a separate women’s camp taught by long-board champion Carla Rowland.
Lands in Love Hotel and Resort (www.landsinlove.com) is the creation of 25 Israeli friends. They purchased 239 acres in San Lorenzo, a cloud forest in Alajuela, and renovated 33 bungalow-type rooms that gracefully hug the slope of the valley. They operate a gourmet vegetarian restaurant featuring what may be the best hummus and falafel in Central America. The landscape includes rainforests, a resort pool, untethered horses and an unimaginable array of birds and flowers. A number of adventure sports are located nearby.
About an hour north of Lands in Love is the luxury Tabacón Resort and spa (www.taba con.com). It was designed by the late Jewish Costa Rican architect Jaime Mikowski, whose vision was to make nature the focus. The resort sits at the base of the Arenal Volcano and is set amid natural mineral pools and hot springs fed by the famed active volcano. The unique design—waterfalls and springs that flow through tropical gardens—has made Arenal one of Costa Rica’s most visited destinations.
A Costa Rican vacation would not be complete without a stop at one of the many nature preserves; nearly 30 percent of the country has been designated as government-protected wildlife preserves and parks. The most popular is Poas Volcano National Park (506-442-7041), surrounded by four different habitats including a stunted forest, cloud forest and the nearby La Paz waterfall.
A four-hour drive from San José is the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve in Puntarenas (www.monteverdeinfo.com), one of the richest and largest nature preserves and wildlife sanctuaries in the country with 400 species of birds, a butterfly farm and hummingbird gallery.
Although it is the smallest of the country’s preserves, Manuel Antonio National Park (www.manuelantoniopark.com) offers pretty much everything a visitor to Costa Rica could hope to experience: lush rainforests, some of the most beautiful beaches in the country and islands with offshore bird sanctuaries.
For a thrilling experience for your taste buds, consider a visit to a coffee plantation. Coffee plays a major role in both the history of Costa Rica and its economy today. In 1991, Bronx-born Steven Aronson founded Café Britt (www.cafebritt.com), a ubiquitous coffee chain in Costa Rica (the coffee is kosher). A leader in organic, sustainable coffee development, today Café Britt is the country’s largest exporter of gourmet beans.
The plantation, a six-acre farm and certified roasting factory just north of San José in Heredia, is open to the public, offering a café, tours and a dramatic re-creation of the global history of coffee.
Doris Yankelewitz was first lady of Costa Rica while her then husband, Luis Alberto Mange, served as president (1982-86). Jaime Daremblum was the ambassador to the United States from 1998 to 2004. Singer Debi Nova has performed internationally both on her own and with pop star Ricky Martin. Dentist Luis Kaver has fixed the teeth of nearly every Miss Costa Rica since 1997.
Playwright Samuel Rovinski contributed the short story “The Adventure” to the anthology Costa Rica: A Traveler’s Literary Companion (Whereabouts Press).
Steven Spielberg filmed parts of his 1993 blockbuster Jurassic Park in Manuel Antonio National Park. 1492: Conquest of Paradise was shot partly in Costa Rica; it was released in 1992 on the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s maiden voyage to the New World.
Perhaps the most blatant reflection of the burgeoning Jewish community is the number of (nonkosher) bagelries that have opened in the last 10 years, including Boston Bagel, Bagelman’s and Bagel Factory.
In San José, the chain supermarket Automercado carries a decent selection of kosher frozen meats and dry goods, mostly from Israel. The Little Israel-Pita Rica market on Frente a Shell, Pavas (506-290-2083) and New York Kosher Deli (www.crkosher.com) also sell kosher food. The Centro’s Web site lists places, food products and companies that are kosher.
Outside of San José, many hotels will prepare vegetarian food for guests, and there is always the national dish—gallo y pinto, rice and beans.
There are two kosher hotels, one in San José, the Barcelo San José Palacio (506-220-2034), and the Autopista Prospero on Fernandez y Boulevard in Camino Real (506-289-7000). In Costa Rica, one will find luxury and nature as well as a strong Jewish community that has prospered in this paradise. It is no wonder that Costa Rica is often called the Pearl of Central America.