Costa Rica may well be Israel’s best friend among the states of the world, unswerving in its friendship since 1948 and the only state to maintain its embassy in Jerusalem. A green and eco-friendly land, approximately twice the size of Israel, Costa Rica lies some ten degrees above the equator, between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, rising from tropical beaches through rain forests to sometime-now dusted volcanic peaks. Located between Nicaragua and Panama, Costa Rica is the great democracy of Central America and perhaps the greatest democracy in all Latin America.
Costa Ricans pride themselves on three things in particular: their democracy, their strong commitment to education, and their lack of a standing army.
They could also pride themselves on their efforts to preserve their natural wonders and their tolerance of the minorities in the midst, including the Jewish minority. A Catholic country, officially as well as demographically, since the 1930′s, several thousand Jews, almost half from the same two villages in Poland, have found a home in Costa Rica. They have built a prosperous and closely knit Jewish community.
While one wave of Sephardic Jews lived in Costa Rica as Marranos in the 16th and 17th centuries and another as merchants in the 19th, the present Jewish community dates from before World War II and is primarily of Eastern European origin, nearly half from two villages in Poland. They were apparently from within the Hasidic ambit since they use the Hasidic ritual Nusach Sephard in their services. When they came to Costa Rica they became known as “Polacos,” (perhaps for the same reason as in Mexico where the Jews chose that term because they feared to be identified as “Judeos” or “Israelitas”), a term which had some derogatory connotations. There has been a bit of anti-Semitism, though it is nowhere anything to worry about.
Costa Rican non-Jews have as part of their national myth the notion that the original Spanish population in Costa Rica included many Sephardic Jews, which is one of the reasons they use to explain why Costa Rica is exceptional in Latin America. Those Sephardim were fleeing the Inquisition. They were Marranos and simply assimilated. Again, this partly explains the extensive nominal Catholicism in the country, according to the local Costa Ricans. They also say that people who have animal surnames betray their Marrano origin, for they did not want to take real “Catholic” names.
The common estimate of the size of the Jewish community is 3,000 souls, but many suggest that there are another 1,500 “hidden” Jews, including American retirees who have settled in Costa Rica.
The principal institutions of the community are the Instituto Jaim Weizmann, a comprehensive school from kindergarten through secondary school, with 350 students. Just about all Jewish children attend primary school. Most stay on for secondary school, although a few are taken out and sent to the American school presumably to better prepare for entrance into American universities. Essentially none go to the Costa Rican public schools which teach Catholic religion. The school is organized on a very high level with a relatively intensive Jewish education program.
Like much of the diaspora, the community is nominally Orthodox by choice. Thus the school teaches Orthodox Judaism and is served by the Torah Education Department of the WZO. There are religious services every morning and until two or three years ago attendance at Shabbat services was compulsory. There is a certain amount of social pressure to attend and some 20-30 students do so weekly. They also have their own High Holiday services.
The established synagogue is the Orthodox synagogue. All the permanent resident Costa Rican Jews are members of it, even though their Orthodoxy is quite nominal. There is also a Reform group, B’nai Israel, which meets Friday nights at 7:30. It seems to cater primarily to Americans Jews who have retired to Costa Rica, of which there are an unknown number estimated in the hundreds. There is also a community center, Centro Israelita to which most Jews belong.
The community also has a kosher butcher shop, two shochetim, one of whom is retired, and a delicatessen run by Orthodox Jews that carries kosher products. Thus it is possible to get the basics in Costa Rica to maintain a Jewish life. The community does want to maintain its Orthodox linkage, with many keeping kashrut at home and then doing what they please outside.
In February 2006, two members of Costa Rica’s small Jewish community, Clara Zomer and Masha Ofelia Taitelbaum, won seats in the country’s Legislative Assembly and will begin serving four-year terms when the new legislature takes office in May. Their party will have the largest bloc in the legislature and both are expected to have leadership roles within the bloc.
It is generally agreed that business is good for Jews, that they can make money doing almost anything, and that Costa Rica is a very comfortable place so it is quite attractive.
Rabinato De Costa Rica and Synagogue (Orthodox)
Centro Israelita Sionista De Costa Rica
Apartado Postal 1473-1000
San Jose, Costa Rica
Fax: +506 2220-1951
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org , Frida Lang, Secretary
Rabbi Gershon Miletzki
There is kosher food in the cafeteria of the Centro Israelita. (Dairy and Parve).
Centro Israelita Sionista de Costa Rica
Tel: +506-2520-1013 ext.3
Email: ggrynspan (at)centroisraelita.com
CHABAD OF COSTA RICA:
Jabad Lubavitch de Costa Rica
Del Banco Cuscatlan Carretera a Pavas 20 m al norte
S. Jose, 816-1007, Costa Rica
Hotels within walking distance to Chabad center:
Rabbi Hershel Spalter, Mrs. Chanah Spalter, Co-Directors
Israel Embassy, Costa Rica
Paseo Colón, Calle 38 avenida 2, Oficento Colón, Piso 11
Email: embofisr (at)racsa.co.cr
Congregación B’nei Israel – Judaísmo Reformista en Costa Rica – Reform Judaism in Costa Rica ( Liberal , Progressive)
Affiliated with World Union of Progressive Judaism – Union of Jewish Liberal Congregations of Central America and the Caribbean.
Sinagoga B’nai Israel Oficinas de TORNECA
Avenida 10. Frente al Cemetario de Extranjeros
The Jewish Country Club “Deportivo Israelita”
(2 blocks West of the Shell cas station of Pavas)
Kosher Burger King
PLAZA ROHRMOSER (two blocks from the orthodox synagogue)
Supervision: Rabbi Gershon Miletzki, Chief Rabbinate of Costa Rica, Glatt Kosher
Kosher Center (2 Blocks from the Orthodox synagogue)
Carretera a Pavas – South side of October 54, diagonal to La Artistica. Pavas opposite La Artistica, big red sign.
Cuisine: All Kinds of delicatessen, meats, grill, bakery.
Supervision: Rabbi Gershon Miletski Chief Rabbi of the Orthodox-Jewish
By: Harv Gmail hbinnes (at) gmail.com
Barcelo San Jose Palacio
Email: Palacio (at) sol.racsa.co.cr
Fernandez y Blvd
PO Box 11856-1000
Email: caminoreal (at)ticonet.co.cr
IMPORTANT & RETAILERS:
Corporacion Mas x Menos
Gustavo Zuniga, Import Manager
Jose A. Munoz, General Manager