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Costa Rican Jewish Leaders Debate Religious Affiliations

September 20, 1995
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After a passionate debate on the religious affiliation of Costa Rica’s Jewish community, local leaders have decided to remain Orthodox.

But at an unprecedented “community congress” last week, 150 community members also agreed to listen to experts on Conservative Judaism. In addition, they voted to open official communications with the country’s nascent Reform and Chabad Lubavitch congregations.

Costa Rica’s 2,500 member Jewish community has long maintained a staunchly Orthodox line. However, in recent years, breakaway Reform and Chabad congregations have arisen, the former comprised mainly of foreign residents here and the latter a small grouping of less than two dozen families.

The community congress voted overwhelmingly to invite Conservative moment representatives to discuss the viability of introducing the country’s oldest and largest congregation to that stream of Judaism, a move supporters said would save the community from division and eventual disappearance.

“This is about finding sincerity with ourselves,” said Jeanette de Meltzer, a proponent of the measure to explore affiliating with the Conservative moment.

“Prayers would be more important for me if they were in Spanish and I could have my family at my side,” she said.

But Orthodox traditions in this community run deep.

Isaias Mendelewicz, a supporter of maintaining the ties to Orthodox Judaism, said that only by being an Orthodox community “are we going to achieve the continuity of our community.”

Defenders of the community’s Orthodox tradition expressed fear that accepting other movements would pave the way of interfaith marriages in the community and lead to further assimilation in the predominantly Catholic society.

Supporters of Conservative Judaism argued that few in the community in this Central American country live by the mandates of Orthodoxy and that almost all leave their businesses open during the Sabbath and even on Rosh Hashanah. They said opening the community to other religious streams would provide a greater stimulus for younger members to remain within the community.

But the apparent compromise worked out at the community congress satisfied those who are open to further discussion about affiliation within the Costa Rican community.

“I think it’s very important that we decided to maintain the Orthodoxy without extremism and closing ourselves to discussion,” said Jaime Weisleder, president of the Costrican Israeli-Zionist Center.

The community’s rabbi said he welcomed the discussion, which he predicted would further unite the community. “I think from my view of the community, it’s very important that people come together and say what they think,” said Rabbi Moshe Lefkowtiz. “When you talk you listen, when you listen you can do things.”

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