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Around the Jewish World After Years of Improvisation, Jews in Costa Rica Are Now Turning Kosher

April 22, 2005
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The eating habits of Costa Rica’s estimated 2,500 Orthodox Jews are changing. Jews are increasingly eating kosher food in what may be the most significant sign of a revival of tradition to hit the community since it began in the 1930s.

With this month’s expected opening of the country’s first kosher deli, and predictions of a record demand for kosher products for Passover, rabbis here say that Costa Rica’s Jews no longer can point to the unavailability of kosher products as an excuse. In fact, more of the country’s households now keep kosher than ever before.

“Food is an important part of Jewish life,” said Rabbi Gershon Miletski, who is Orthodox.

For six years, he’s been head rabbi of the Israeli-Zionist Center.

In the past, he says, 90 percent of the space in the suitcases he and his wife would bring back from their frequent trips to Israel would be filled with food. Now, though, local supermarkets carry a wide variety of kosher products, including meat and poultry slaughtered under his supervision.

The number of families keeping kosher remains modest — perhaps 200 households — and many family members sometimes break the rules when they eat out. It is believed about 100 head of kosher cattle are consumed monthly. That’s just half the amount of kosher beef eaten each week in neighboring Panama. But just 15 years ago, except for items ordered for Passover, virtually none of the country’s 2,500 Orthodox Jews kept kosher at all.

When a Chabad Lubavich emissary, Rabbi Hersh Spalter, came to this tropical Central American country from the United States in 1987, he found keeping kosher to be a serious test of his patience and taste buds.

“Fifteen years ago the only kosher product available was Wesson oil. Then came Pringles potato chips,” he says, rolling his eyes. “I should know. I looked everywhere.”

After a shipment of beef was held up in customs for almost five months — reducing Spalter and his family to an almost entirely vegetable diet — he realized something would have to be done about the situation.

Many local Jews credit Spalter with the community’s renewed interested in kashrut. He started slaughtering chickens according to the laws of kashrut, and he began to import kosher food for local distribution.

“The shechitah” — ritual slaughter — “that Chabad has maintained in a constant and consistent manner has been very helpful,” said Dr. German Fainzilber, whose large family keeps kosher.

Now Spalter and Miletski both offer their own brands of meat and chicken. It’s frozen — the demand is not high enough for it be available fresh — and it costs up to 50 percent more than fresh, nonkosher meat and poultry.

With encouragement from Spalter, newly arrived Montreal transplant Jeremy Zibell, 25, is opening a New York-style kosher deli this month, complete with pickles, corned beef, pastrami and real rye bread. It will all be homemade, and most ingredients will be domestic.

“A friend of mine came back from Costa Rica, and he was telling me that there was nothing, not much happening as far as Jewish food, deli food,” Zibell says. “So I decided to come down. I really enjoy making food and I thought there might be an opportunity. I liked it here, I liked the weather — I decided I was going to open a deli.”

Zibell assumes that most of his customers will not be Jewish; instead, he thinks, they will be American expatriates and Costa Ricans who have traveled abroad.

That’s the profile of most of the customers at the kosher market owned by Gil Aharoni, an Israeli, and his family.

Aharoni’s crowded “Little Israel” mini-market and “Pita Rica” bakery have been open for almost a decade. The stores are the country’s most reliable source for kosher food and Judaica; most of its gentile customers come to buy instant falafel mixes, sweets, salads and dips.

Neither Zibell nor Aharoni had any background in the kosher food business when each fell in love with the tropics and decided to stay.

Costa Rica’s kosher wine distributor, on the other hand, is local, and depends on local Jews. Pilar Lizama, whose family sells kosher wines imported from Chile, said that most of the 400 cases sold last year went to local Jewish families. However, most of that wine was destined for weddings and other social events. Despite a free trade agreement with Chile that helps boost wine consumption, Costa Rica is still a country where wine sales lag behind those of beer and hard alcohol.

Miletski estimates that the extra annual cost of maintaining a kosher household in Costa Rica is equal to two round-trip plane tickets to Miami, the most popular vacation destination for Costa Ricans. Many families have decided that the cost is easy enough to absorb.

Both the rabbis and the merchants expect that Costa Rica’s kosher market will continue to expand. Hoping to get in on the lucrative kosher event-catering business, several high-end hotels have set up kosher kitchens.

A free-trade agreement between Costa Rica and the United States is awaiting legislative approval, so many exporters are seeking seals of approval from Miletski and Spalter.

Aharoni’s family offers an online catering service for visiting tourists who want to maintain kashrut while visiting the country’s jungles and rain forests. And a newly opened resort on the Pacific Coast, about four hours by car from the nearest synagogue, has set aside a kosher kitchen for its guests.

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