Costa Rica: an unlikely haven for Jewish life

Costa Rica: an unlikely haven for Jewish life

The mother of one of my students invited me to her home for Shabbat dinner. As the six-year-old son passed the gefilte fish across the table to his grandma, I realized that somehow, in this Christian nation, I have felt as connected — if not more so —to my Jewish roots than living in New Jersey or New York, where are there are more Jews than anywhere in the world, second only to Israel. How is this possible?

First, let’s look at Costa Rica’s relationship with Israel.

Costa Rica was the first country to establish their embassy in Jerusalem, unlike most countries, which set up their embassies in Tel Aviv so as not to offend the Palestinians’ claim on the religious city. This is a statement in itself and it stems from a unique commonality between Israel and Costa Rica as the only democracies in a region surrounded by dictatorships and military regimes.

What role do Jews play in Costa Rica? Well, there’s Luis Liberman Ginsburg. Who? He’s only the country’s vice president.

This is a hospitable country to foreigners, making Costa Rica a place where Jews cannot only practice their religion, but thrive in an active Jewish community and in the community at large. Part of the reason I’ve felt a strong connection to Judaism here is because it’s something I’m familiar with in an unfamiliar land. But I believe that it’s more than that. It stems from the fact that the Jewish community here is not only successful, but is very tight-knit. It seems like Jews here do not marry outside their faith; in every Jewish gathering I’ve attended, there has always been someone playing the matchmaker. Also the day after I informed my student that I was Jewish, he handed me his cell phone, saying, “It’s my mom,” and she extended an invitation to her home for Shabbat dinner. Would that have happened in New Jersey? Probably not. Not when there are 500,000 Jews, compared to 3,500 in Costa Rica.

It’s more than sheer numbers. I had lived in Japan where there are 2,000 Jews; I didn’t find the Jewish community to be as welcoming or as active as in Costa Rica. This may be in part because the Costa Rican Jews have a rich history. Most of the oldest Jews here immigrated in the 1920s and 30s from the same village — a shtetl in Poland called Yelechov. This happens to be near Schpikilosi, the shtetl where my great grandparents lived. There are even 200 Holocaust survivors in Costa Rica. In the center of San Jose is a statue of Anne Frank.

The Jewish community here is unlike any other Jewish community I have come across in my travels. Despite being accepting to Jews, Costa Rica is still a Christian dominated land, and so it’s unlikely you’ll come across a kosher restaurant or a mikva. The Jewish community has responded to this by defining its Jewish identity in unique ways, at least from a New Jersey Jew’s perspective. My student’s family is part of the Orthodox community here. Having attended Shabbat services on Friday night, as they do every week, at a synagogue where men and women are separated, they returned to the grandmother’s home to meet me for dinner…by car. They then served me cheese lasagna since I’m vegetarian, while everyone else ate chicken. They may have even worked that day — one of my Jewish friends here told me that most Jewish businesses stay open on Shabbat. What I’ve gathered from all this is that there seems to be a distinction here between life inside and outside the synagogue.

Judaism is not only a religion, but a culture and a race, a small minority with major success, a people of nearly 6,000 years, the oldest existing religion in the world, who have survived countless persecutions. As my student’s family drove me home after Shabbat dinner, I told them that it was nice to be among Jews. “There’s a unique connection among us,” the mother responded, “which nobody else understands.”

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