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Costa Rica

Costa Rica: A Jewish-Friendly Pandemic Getaway

By | Costa Rica, Jewish Travel | No Comments

“Izu’s Place” meets the needs of Jewish travelers looking for surf, sand and Kosher food

January 22, 2021

JACO, Costa Rica – It’s hard to find a safer and more tranquil setting to ride out a pandemic than this alluring beach town on the Pacific Coast in Central America.

Costa Rica beach

One of the many uncrowded beaches on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica

Jaco (pronounced Hah-koh by the locals) offers uncrowded beaches, world-class surfing, access to rainforests teaming with wildlife, and numerous outdoor dining options with socially distanced tables.

Add to that list of attractions a per-capita COVID death rate that is only about one-fourth of my home state of Arizona, and Costa Rica makes an attractive and sensible pandemic-getaway.

It’s also a place where Jewish travelers won’t have difficulty keeping Kosher or otherwise observing their faith.   During a recent visit to Jaco, I visited the hub of Jewish life on the country’s Pacific Coast – the “Jewish Center Jaco Beach.”

Just a five-minute walk from the beach, the complex includes a 16-room hotel with swimming pool, Kosher restaurant, library and small Orthodox synagogue called Hahari Hakadosh.

There, I met Israeli ex-pats Yizhak Eskenazi – who goes by “Izu” – and his wife Toni.  The Eskenazis own and run the Center and live there with their two young children.

The Eskenazis told me that Costa Rica has become a popular vacation destination for Israelis during the pandemic.  Unlike a lot of other countries, it does not require visitors to self-quarantine or to present a negative COVID test.

Jaco Jewish Center

The Jaco Jewish Center features a synagogue, hotel and Kosher restaurant

“Israelis are looking for a place to escape,” says Toni.  “And Costa Rica is open.”

Costa Rica, with a population of about 5 million, is a peaceful democracy that has coastlines on both the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea.  It has carved out a niche in recent years as an eco-friendly destination for sun-seekers, surfers and adventure travelers.

The country is home to an estimated 4,000 Jews, most of whom live in the capital city of San Jose, 90 minutes away from Jaco.  Many are descendants of Polish Jews who fled Europe in the 1930s.

Ever since Costa Rica recognized Israel in 1948, the two countries have had mostly friendly relations.  From 1982-2006, Costa Rica was one of only two countries in the world to have maintained its embassy in Jerusalem.

Izu grew up surfing in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Israel.  He first visited Costa Rica in 1999 and planned to stay one year to indulge his passion for riding the waves.  He’s been in Jaco ever since, having fallen in love with a lifestyle that he says is far more laidback than what he left behind in Israel.

“The locals received him very well, says Toni.  “They had never met an Israeli before.”

Costa Rica kosher

Toni and Yizhak Eskenazi inside the Kosher Restaurant in Jaco, Costa Rica

In 2001 he founded “Izu’s Place” to assist Jewish travelers and provide them with an opportunity to pray with a minyan and keep Kosher.

Toni, who grew up in Tel Aviv, met Izu nine years ago during a vacation to Costa Rica.  The two felt an immediate connection and Izu knew they would become a couple when Toni cooked her way into his heart with a Shabbat dinner featuring a Moroccan seafood dish and homemade challah.

“I’m happy when I eat her food,” he says of Toni, whose parents have both worked in the restaurant industry in Israel.

While the pandemic forced Sabress, the on-site Kosher restaurant to close for seven months, it reopened in October and Toni says business is slowly starting to return to normal.

Indeed, during my visit to the Jewish Center on a Thursday afternoon, the restaurant was doing a brisk business and the hotel was booked to capacity.  Some of the guests have been staying there several months or longer.  The last Passover Seder before the pandemic attracted 150 people.

Hahari Hakadosh holds Shabbat meals and services Friday nights and Saturday mornings.  The synagogue doesn’t have a rabbi – there are only two resident rabbis in the entire country — but Chabad sends one to Jaco from New York for the high holidays.  Hahari Hakadosh’s arc houses two Torah scrolls – one Sephardic, the other Ashkenazic.

Jaco synagogue

Yizhak Eskenazi opened the Hahari Hakadosh synagogue in 2010

“We’re an open place for everyone to pray,” says Toni, noting that the Center is not affiliated with Chabad but does “cooperate” with the organization.

Toni says she has encountered no anti-Semitism during her time in Costa Rica.

“They love Jews,” she says of the locals. “They love the culture. They are always asking questions. They want to learn more about Judaism.”

She adds that most of the restaurant’s customers are not Jewish — “just people who love this food.”

Sabress serves Kosher Israeli and Moroccan dishes under strict Orthodox supervision. Once a week, the Eskenazis make the 90-minute drive to San Jose to pick up supplies of Kosher food at the Chabad Center there.

Asked about the restaurant’s specialty, Toni didn’t hesitate.

“Our falafel is the best,” she says, adding that the restaurant makes its pita bread fresh every day by hand.  The restaurant also has a catering division that delivers Kosher food – with no delivery charge — in the Jaco area.  Sabress has become so popular on the Jaco restaurant scene that TripAdvisor awarded it its 2019 Certificate of Excellence.

In addition to the restaurant, hotel and synagogue, the Eskenazis also runs a tour agency and “Izu’s Surf School,” which arranges lessons and surfboard rentals. Jaco is known for having some of the best surfing spots in Costa Rica.

For more information about the Jewish Center Jaco Beach and to make hotel reservations, visit the website: izusplace.com.

The Eskenazis own land in Playa Hermosa near Jaco and eventually hope to build a high-end housing complex and stand-alone synagogue to entice more Jews to move to Costa Rica and enjoy the laidback lifestyle and spiritual sustenance they’ve found in Central America.

“I came here to relax,” says Izu.  “I didn’t plan to do all this.  It just happened.  G-d guides us where to go.”

                                                    © 2021 Dan Fellner