Heritage Florida Jewish News - Central Florida's Independent Jewish Voice

Never a stranger in a foreign land


Congregation B'nai Israel in Costa Rica.

This past December, Linda Kost, president of Congregation Beth Sholom in Leesburg, received a telephone call from a man named Norman Siegel, who, with his wife, Frankie, were ex-pats in Costa Rica for about five years and were now looking to return to the United States. They knew that they wanted to go to Florida but were unsure as to where-just that there be a good number of Jewish families and synagogues. Finding our website on Google, he telephoned Linda.

Linda knew that I often travelled to Costa Rica and that I might still be there. Unsure, I received an email with the subject, "r u home?" Well, I had already returned, but I contacted Norman. Through the exchange of emails, we got to know one another a bit and then I received an email asking when I would return to Costa Rica and could we meet. The timing was perfect-my wife, Helen, and I were leaving for Costa Rica in a few weeks.

Two weeks later we arrived in San Jose and I contacted Norman. He asked if we would like to accompany them to services on Saturday. He advised that Saturday services were usually in English, except that this Saturday, the rabbi was on vacation and the services would be led by a member of the congregation-mostly in Spanish.

The first Jewish settlers in Costa Rica were "Conversos" who fled the Spanish Inquisition. Through assimilation, hardly a trace of this group remains. Currently, there are about 3,000 Jews in Costa Rica-at least half of whom came before and immediately after World War II. Coming from two Polish towns, about 50 miles from Warsaw, helps to explain the community is primarily orthodox. The Jewish community is centered in San Jose.

There are four synagogues in San Jose, the largest of which is Shaarei Zion, an Ashkenanzi Orthodox synagogue and administrator of the Orthodox Cemetery; Chabad Lubavitch (Hassidic); B'nai Israel (Reformed); and Bet Midrash Morasha (Sephardic Orthodox). There are kosher butchers, a schochet (ritual slaughterer), restaurants (delicatessens and a kosher Burger King) and kosher products available in larger supermarkets.

It's now Saturday and Norman advises us to take Uber car service to Calle 90 (pronounced "kahyea"-"street" in Spanish) to Congregation B'nai Israel. You can't miss the shul-it's a white building on the corner with Jewish stars in the windows! I look up Google maps to get an idea as to where Calle 90 is. It is only a 10-minute ride from our hotel, and it's only two blocks long. Google Earth View shows a large white building at the end of the street.

We get to the street and drive up to the large white building. It seems closed but we get out and walk around the corner where there seems to be an entrance only to find that the entrance is to a family's home. There is a family in the front yard that must have just arrived home as a young man is closing the entrance gate. I approached the young man and asked if he knew about Congregation B'nai Israel and showed him pictures of the building on my cell phone. He informed us that it was not in this area and he did not know where it was. By this time the Uber driver had left. We were two stranded souls in the middle of who knows where. The look on our faces must have said something because the young man's mother came over to see if she could help. She asked us for the name of the synagogue and found it on Google. She telephoned to find out where it was located. At the same time, I telephoned Norman and asked where he was. He said that he was at Calle 90 and waiting for us. I told him that we were at Calle 90 and he was nowhere in sight nor was the shul. He then asked me if I was with someone who was talking to someone at the shul. I told him that I was and at that moment the young man came over and told us that his mother knew where it was and that they would drive us there.

The family of three and Helen and I all packed ourselves into a pick-up truck and drove over. There was, in fact, a continuation of Calle 90, also only two blocks long, on the other side of a major road that bisected Calle 90. Along the way, the mother said to Helen, "You must be good people. Angels are watching over you."

Helen replied, "Yes, you are an angel."

When we arrived at the shul, Norman was waiting outside and had a broad smile on his face. We entered the 2-story building only to find out that the second floor was actually a balcony with an office for the rabbi. The sanctuary had a 2-story ceiling. Seats were arranged on a horseshoe pattern leaving an open area in the front of the bimah. Norman had told us that this was a "progressive" synagogue and we were fully expecting to witness a Reformed service.

Norman told us that since the 1992 and 1994 synagogue bombings in Argentina, membership in any of the synagogues required careful vetting-a letter from your rabbi at home, a copy of your passport, a meeting with the rabbi, etc. It was impossible to gain entrance to attend a service without someone to vouch for you.

I immediately noticed that none of the older men wore the short tallis around their necks but, instead, wore the long tallis that flowed over their shoulders and covered their back. The traditional small tallis was worn by the young men in the congregation. Each of the women wore a similar tallis albeit in more feminine colors. As I looked around the room, I saw that the only Americans there were Norman and Frankie, Helen and I and one other man by the name of Phil Gelman, who was from New York City and also a past-president of the congregation. The rest of the assemblage was made of men and women of various tones of brown. I was told that most of the women were converted to Judaism.

As we made our way around the synagogue, people came up to welcome us. Here we were, 1300 miles from home, in a country where we don't speak the language but never felt alone or distant. Is this the way Costa Ricans are by nature or were we welcomed because we are Jewish? My answer is an emphatic both, especially based on the events getting to the synagogue. Primarily though, it was because we are Jewish and, to quote from our history, strangers in a foreign land.

Helen and I have attended bar mitzvahs for her grand-nephews in France and I attended Kol Nidre services in Tokyo. We were welcomed as though we were the prodigal children returning to the family. And, the conversation is always the same: where are you from... are there many Jews... what is your synagogue like... what is your rabbi like? After you get these basic questions out of the way, the conversation roams in every direction.

I read through the program for the service and saw names such as Yaakov Rodriguez, Alejandro Lev and Shmuel Perez among many others. At this point, a young woman approached a chair that was located on the floor directly in front of the bimah and called the service to order. The prayer book seemed to be modeled after the Gates of Prayer (the Amidah included the matriarchs) but was quite unique in form. The siddur was written and published by the congregation and was tri-lingual-Hebrew, Spanish and English-as well as transliteration for some of the Hebrew prayers. Congregation B'nei Israel positions itself as the only tri-lingual synagogue in Costa Rica-and for all I know, possibly the world.

When it came time for the Torah service, another young woman took the seat and directed a reading of the translation of the week's Parsha: Kedoshim. Some read it in English but most were in Spanish. After the reading, she read what she had written about her understanding of the Parsha. This was followed by an open discussion of the Parsha among the congregation-unfortunately for me, mostly in Spanish. I wish that I understood the discussion because some of the speakers were addressing the group with great emotion. This discussion lasted about an hour and was followed by taking out the Torah and calling congregants for an Aliyah. Rather than have a single person read the Torah, each person sang his/her portion directly from the Torah. I later learned that they are trained by the rabbi to read and sing the Parsha during a weekly class. Listening to the chanting of the Parsha sections, I became aware of the slightly different accents the people have, which made me aware of the vast differences of people and what binds us together as Jews-faith and belief in a single G-d, history and traditions. These attributes allow us to walk into any synagogue in the world, listen to what is being said or hear the melody of a particular prayer and immediately be able to pick up a siddur and find the page where the congregation is in the service.

Near the closing of the service, Helen and I stood to say Kaddish on her father's yahrzeit. While only one other person was standing, all eyes seemed to be on us. At the conclusion of the service, people came over and said, "How fortunate that we were here for you to be able to say Kaddish." What a warm thing to say.

Everyone gathered in a small room for Kiddish. There was a table with food and cake in the center and everyone moved to encircle the table. Manischewitz Concord Grape wine and Welch's Grape juice was handed out and a congregant said the blessing for wine. Then, two challahs were uncovered and as the HaMotzi was about to be said, the entire congregation placed their right hand on the shoulder of the person on their right. I have no idea what the source of this tradition is or the meaning. To me, however, it was joining everyone present into a single unit and closing the circle of community.

After an hour or so of socializing, the group started to head to their homes. One man came over and asked where we were staying and how we were getting there. I told him the name of the hotel and about Uber and he said, "Wait, I'll get you a ride." He did and we did.

My take away from this adventure is that a Jew is a Jew no matter where he goes. I can walk into any synagogue in the world and begin to pray with people who may look different or have an accent and know that, in a short time I will cease to be a stranger in a foreign land.


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