In 1984, two kindergarteners from Country Day School in San Jose, Costa Rica (Saul Herckis and Alberto Bonilla) discovered they were Jewish. Their parents, who did not belong to the Centro Israelita, the only synagogue in the country at that time, because they were not Orthodox in their believes or practices, began to meet weekly to celebrate Shabbat. They were soon joined by other families who sought communal prayer and celebration in a more spiritual, and less rigorous, Jewish framework.
And in those first gatherings, Communidad B’nei Israel of Costa Rica was born.
They first met in private homes, taking turns leading prayers. Their dream was to have a synagogue that met the needs of a community that seemed to be growing daily, if not weekly.
In September of 1987, B’nei Israel welcomed its first paying members to launch its building fund. The first members were: Becky Benzaquen and Oscar Wager, Jody and Carlos Bonilla, Moshe and Kathia Benzaquen, Shulem and Evelyn Dickerman, Jim and Ann Fendell, Jim and Miriam Hirsch, Charles and Rosa Hreckis, David and Anita Kaufman, Bernardo and Gioria Lelchuk, Jeff and Julia Poyo, Alverto and Judy Pauly, Ellen Sossin, Marvin Sossin, Jerry and Hilda ten Brink and Gert ten Brink.
Their dream – of founding a permanent home for their vibrant community – became reality on May 26, 1989 where the first services were held to inaugurate the Escazu building that still houses the congregation for prayers and gatherings through today.
B’nei Israel uses a Torah Scroll that was partially destroyed in World War II. After the war, thousands of Torah Scrolls were salvaged and collected in Westerminster Synagogue, where they were restored and then sent on permanent loan to small congregations around the world. B’nei Israel was fortunate enough to have been one of those congregations. The Torah rests in an ark decorated in an eye-catching manner with a combination of Costa Rican woods.
One of next acquisitions of the community was land for a cemetery which was secured in 1992.
B’nei Israel did not have a regular rabbi, however, they made due with rabbis visiting the area on vacation or having accepted monthly contracts.
In 1987, Rabbi Randall Falk led the congregation’s first Shabbat morning service. He traveled to Costa Rica under on the auspices of the World Union of Progressive Judaism after retiring from Congregation Ohabai Sholom in Nashville, Tennessee. Rabbis Cliff Kulwin and Gary Glickstein led later the congregation’s first Passover seders. In later years, Rabbis Bentley Saperstien, Plaut, Drooze and Rosman led the community as well.
Between 1990 and 1995, Rabbi Harry A. Roth, from Andover, Massachusetts came to Costa Rica for two-to-three months during the high holidays period to serve as the congregation’s rabbi. In 2003, the congregation hired its first permanent rabbi, Micheal Holtzman, and later brought rabbis Rami Pavolotsky and Daniela Shuzster who, in 2004, joined the community and led services for eleven years. The current rabbi is Dario Feiguin from Argentina.
Over the years the community has grown and its Jewish school provides education for children from kindergarten through Bar/Bat Mitzvah age. It also offers adult education courses, Majanes summer camp activities for older children, and is working to address the need for young adult and post Bar/Bat Mitzvah age activities.
The congregation comprises a robust community with 17 nationalities, and dozens of cultural backgrounds and languages. Responding to one of the congregation’s initially-recognized and urgent need: a Progressive prayer book was adapted in English, Spanish and Hebrew. This trilingual siddur continues to serve the congregation weekly and is even in its third revised edition.
In an effort to reach out to other Progressive congregations and Jews in the region, and expand its network, B’nei Israel formed the Union of Jewish Community in Latin America (UJCL) with the help of the World Union. The goal was to involve other Progressive communities in the region and share opportunities for growth, education and support for all of our small communities in the region. The UJCL turns 20 this year.
From two families who discovered their Judaism, and sought an inclusive and meaningful framework to celebrate their values, B’nei Israel has grown into a congregation of more than 90 families. This small synagogue continues to echo its past, bring together voices in the present, work towards a future that’s rich and vibrant for Progressive Jews in Costa Rica and its surroundings.
In November 2017, B’nei Israel of Costa Rica will be celebrating 3o years since its founding. To read more about the celebrations and their individuals in the community, including how you can join or listen in to the festivities, click here.
To join us in supporting and growing Reform and Progressive Judaism in new congregations around the world, click here.