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Jewish Community Studies

The Jewish Community in Costa Rica:
A Peaceful Community in a Peaceful Land

Daniel J. Elazar

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 pleasant land, approximately twice the size of Israel, Costa Rica lies some ten degrees above the equator, between the Pacific Ocean and the Carribean Sea, rising from tropical beaches through rain forests to sometime-now dusted volcanic peaks. Located between Nicaragua and Panama, two turbulent dictatorships of the left and the right, Costa Rica is the great democracy of Central America and perhaps the greatest democracy in all Latin America. This year Costa Rica is celebrating one hundred years of free elections, 1889 - 1989.

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 aand 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 is some anti-Semitism, though it is not serious.

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 2,000 souls, but many suggest that there are another 1,000 "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 present principal of the school is a Jewish woman. She succeeded a string of non-Jewish principals. We did not meet her since she was in Mexico attending a conference of principals of Jewish schools in Latin America. She is reputed to be very good. We did meet with two of the morim shlichim -- Shimon and Carmella Lugasi from Kiryat Gat. He teaches in the high school, she in the lower elementary grades. Both seem to be excellent teachers.

My wife Harriet observed them teaching in the school (I could not enter the building because of steps) and was very impressed. She also sat in on teachers meetings there and collected material which they had prepared in Hebrew for use in the school. She reports that they work to develop a basic Hebrew vocabulary of 300 words in the young students and then build on that in subsequent learning. She was very impressed with the entire program that she saw.

The Lugasis themselves are very impressive and enthusiastic people. The Lugasis are completing three years and will be going back this summer. They seem to be extremely important as energizers of the school. There is one teacher in the school who is a local girl, a product of the school, who was subsequently trained in Israel at Machon Gold and is now back teaching. The school committee may be the most important Jewish governing body in the country. It certainly seems to be treated as such.

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. The rabbi is a young man from Chile who studied in Israel at the Beth Midrash HaTorah (BMT) and then at Aish Hatorah from which he has his smicha. There is also a Reform group, B'nai Israel, which meets Friday nights at 7:30 and advertises itself in the Tico Times, the Costa Rican English-language newspaper. 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.

There is some problem of intermarriage, with occasional conversions. Usually the prospective converts are sent to Miami or to Israel where they are taught and then converted. They are given some initial training by the teacher-emissary in Costa Rica.

Some estimate that there are 300 Israelis living permanently in Costa Rica. Other estimates are 40-50 Israeli families. These include some Israelis who have married Costa Rican Jewish girls and have settled there either to enter the family business or to establish businesses financed by the girl's family, as is customary in the country. There are other Israelis who simply wandered through and found this was a good place to make a living so they settled down. There are still others who came with the various Israeli projects in Costa Rica. Tahal has water projects, there are agricultural projects of various kinds, and others as well. So Israelis come through on a temporary basis all the time. Occasionally some stay. 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.

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