Costa Ricas tiny community values tradition, identity

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In Costa Rica, it was old news.

A Jewish woman has already been vice president there, and "in the current upcoming election, in the two main political parties, both candidates for vice president are Jews," said Jaime Daremblum, the Costa Rican ambassador to the United States.

Daremblum, who has served in his diplomatic post for 3-1/2 years, was the first Jew to graduate from law school in Costa Rica. His term ends this month.

Although its Jewish population is tiny — approximately 3,500 Jews, less than one-tenth of one percent of the country's population of 1.5 million people — "Costa Rica has traditionally been very hospitable to foreigners and minorities," Daremblum said. "They have always had full rights, with ample spaces to preserve their identity and beliefs."

As a result, "Jews are present in all important aspects of Costa Rican life: in economics, the arts and politics," the ambassador said.

The country's good relations with Jews extends to those outside its borders. Costa Rica has long been considered a solid ally of Israel; it was the first country to establish its embassy in Jerusalem, in 1953. El Salvador is the only other country to have its embassy located in Israel's capital. (Most countries have their embassies in Tel Aviv, so as not to offend the Palestinians, who challenge Israeli authority over Jerusalem.)

Daremblum thinks it might be because Costa Ricans could identify with the sole democracy in an otherwise hostile region.

"Israel is a democracy and Costa Rica is a democracy," he said. "For a long time that was an exception in a region often plagued by military regimes."

When asked about the Jewish community itself, Daremblum said education is the primary reason it is so close-knit.

Most Jews send their children to the Jewish day school, but even those who favor American or other private schools "always provide for supplementary Jewish education."

While some Sephardim did make their way to Costa Rica at the time of the Inquisition, the Jewish community of Costa Rica today is largely Ashkenazi. Most of the older generation come from the same place: the Polish village of Yelechov, immigrating in the 1920s and '30s. About 200 Holocaust survivors are still alive.

With most Jews based in and around the capital city of San José, the focal points of the Jewish community are the Orthodox Shaarei Zion Synagogue, with 2,500 members, and the community center, which is known as the country club.

In 1989, a second synagogue, B'nai Israel, was built. The Reform congregation has perhaps one-tenth the membership of Shaarei Zion and as is often the case in these situations, members of the two synagogues have little contact. B'nai Israel is made up of mostly American expatriates and native Costa Rican Jews who have intermarried.

Chabad also has a presence, with a rabbi in San José.

But it is the members of Shaarei Zion, representing the majority of the nation's Jews, who make up "the community" in Costa Rica. And while the synagogue is Orthodox, its members do not necessarily adhere to halachah.

For example, most attend services every week, but they drive to get there. They also drive on Saturdays to the Jewish-only country club, a year-round institution since the tropical weather doesn't vary much from season to season. Most businesses stay open on Shabbat.

The country club is strictly kosher, as is the synagogue kitchen. While Friday night services draw the entire community, it is mostly the older generation that attends on Saturday mornings. And at a recent luncheon following services, men and women sat at different tables, as per the rabbi's instruction, not the congregation's preference.

The tables were laden with typical Jewish fare: egg, tuna and eggplant salads, with herring. But there was one addition: the native Costa Rican dish, gallo y pinto, a dish made from black beans and rice.

While the congregation considered affiliating with the Conservative movement some years ago, members voted to remain Orthodox.

"Orthodox people can't go to a Conservative synagogue," said Ana Steinkoler, a 37-year-old business administrator. "We need it to be Orthodox so everyone can go."

Besides, said Monica Weisleder, a 36-year-old lawyer, to see a woman take out the Torah, as is now often the case in the United States, is not something Costa Ricans grow up with, and therefore, to see it "really is a shock."

Steinkoler and Weisleder have known each other "since birth," they agreed. Both were raised in Costa Rica and are of Ashkenazi origin, but Weisleder's parents emigrated from Argentina.

They spoke about "the community" on a recent Shabbat afternoon to a visitor at the country club, while their children — five between them — swam or played sports nearby.

In Central America, they said, the Jewish communities are similar in nature, with Spanish-speaking gatherings for the teenagers and young adults.

There is almost no tolerance for intermarriage. Since most Costa Rican children attend the Jewish day school and grow up together, they either marry Jews they meet abroad, or those who are several years older or younger. While a few have intermarried, to be a member of Shaarei Zion, the non-Jewish partner must convert according to Orthodox standards — usually studying in either Israel or Miami. Otherwise, the couple joins the Reform synagogue.

"There are more and more mixed marriages, but it must be an Orthodox conversion," said Weisleder.

Most Costa Rican Jews spend up to a year in Israel after high school, living on a kibbutz and touring the country.

Graduates of the Jaim Weizman day school are fluent in Spanish, English and Hebrew, usually speaking better Hebrew than English.

While both women said they had a few non-Jewish friends, their lives revolved around the Jewish community.

And while both had plenty of opportunities to see how Jews live around the world, particularly in the United States, they agreed that life for the Jews is better in Costa Rica.

"It's easier here," said Steinkoler. Besides the fact that kids almost automatically attend the Jewish school, she said, "Here you know everyone, you all have the same circle of friends."

Both women pointed to Costa Rica's friendly relationship with Israel as an example of attitudes toward the Jews.

Despite their tiny numbers, "most Costa Ricans think there are millions of Jews here," said Weisleder. "I've never had a problem saying, 'I'm Jewish.' You feel you can do your Jewish things without any problem."

Steinkoler said that the only comment she ever heard when people found out she was Jewish was that she didn't look it, because of her blond hair.

"We're very into the community," said Weisleder. "Our lives revolve around it. You live Jewishly all the week."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."