'If We Stop Being a Closed Jewish Community, There Will Be No One Left'

The Zionist youth of Costa Rica is in Israel to learn; a South African couple on a Holy Land pilgrimage talking about quitting their careers to become nut farmers.

Moi Stern, Mark Wien, Eial Rosenstock, Ari Wonsover and Shoshana 'Shoshi' Levy.
Tomer Appelbaum

Moi Stern, 18; Mark Wien, 18; Eial Rosenstock, 17; and Ari Wonsover, 17; all from San Jose, Costa Rica, and arriving from there; Shoshana “Shoshi” Levy 70, from Haifa.

Hello, can I ask who you people are?

Eial: We’re group leaders in the Zionist youth movements in Costa Rica.

Mark: We’ve all finished high school and now we’re here for a year, to learn how to be better leaders.

Eial: And to get to know Israel.

Mark: And to meet people from Hawaii, Chile and Argentina.

Eial: We’ll start by spending four months at the [Jewish Agency’s] Youth Leadership Training Institute in Jerusalem. 

Ari: Then two months in Tel Aviv and two months in the Marva program, which is like army.

Mark: After that we can do whatever we want.

Eial: The idea is to return to the movement in Costa Rica and apply everything you learn here.

What’s happening in the Costa Rica movement?

Mark: We learn about Israel, Zionism, history.

Shoshi: Young people in Israel don’t know what these people know, it’s unbelievable.

Eial: I wouldn’t say that. We’re pluralists, we don’t think that we’re the only real Zionists.

Are you encouraged to settle in Israel?

Moi: Yes, even though that’s not really good for the community itself, because it reduces its size even more. But that’s the goal of our movement. It’s a very well-known program in the Costa Rican Jewish community. My father participated in the program.

Eial: My father, too. He was on the program in Israel and then studied at the Technion [Institute of Technology in Haifa]. That’s where he met my mother.

Shoshi: They met at a students’ party and were married in Israel. I’m Eial’s grandmother.

Mark: My grandparents were Israelis who worked in growing flowers. As part of their work they came to Costa Rica, and that’s how my mother met my father. And in the end everyone followed them to Costa Rica.

Moi: My grandparents were Poles who immigrated to Costa Rica.

So the whole Costa Rica community are Ashkenazim.

Ari: All my grandparents are Polish, too.

Eial: There were three waves of Jewish immigration to Costa Rica. The first was of Sephardi Jews from the Caribbean. I don’t know why, but those families assimilated. The second wave took place before the Holocaust, from Poland.

Ari: Almost all of them were from the same city in Poland, and they were all family to one degree or another.

Shoshi: They were a few families who boarded a ship that they were told was bound for the United States, and they ended up in Costa Rica.

Eyal: After the Holocaust, more Jews came, because they had family there. It was a kind of unification process between refugees and relatives.

Mark: There are 2,500 people in the community today.

Moi: Even though it’s a small community, the Jews are very influential in the economy and in politics.

Moi: For example, the last vice president of Costa Rica was a Jew.

That’s comforting...

Moi: There are many businesses in Costa Rica that were established by Jews; we have nothing to be ashamed of and we have nothing to hide from.

Why would there be a reason to hide?

Moi: There’s anti-Semitism, but it’s more evident in talk, on university campuses, on Facebook and Twitter.

Mark: It’s not something that happens when you walk on the street. Maybe if there’s a ceremony having to do with Israel, people with Palestinian flags will show up, but that’s really nothing, relatively.

Moi: Costa Rica isn’t so anti-Semitic, but they make you feel different. Maybe because it’s a small community that has a big impact, so it stands out. Maybe in the United States people don’t care if you’re Jewish or not.

Let’s hope so. Are you religious?

Ari: The communities in Costa Rica are [officially] Orthodox, but the people aren’t.

Mark: It’s not easy to be religiously observant in Costa Rica.

Ari: The friends of almost everyone in the community are also Jews. It’s like a bubble, you don’t go outside it much.

Eyal: It’s a closed community and that’s part of the thing. If we stop being a closed community, there will be no one left.

Carol and Rob Bole.
Tomer Appelbaum

Carol Bole, 73, and Rob Bole, 77, from White River, South Africa; flying to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Hello, can I ask you how you spent your time in Israel?

Rob: We’d always wanted to visit Israel. It’s the Holy Land, and we are believers. We recommend Israel very highly, the people here are very friendly.

Carol: We were also in Egypt. We saw the Pyramids, we spent three days on a boat on the Nile and we rode camels. Very interesting.

Rob: We flew above Luxor in a hot-air balloon and we saw a lot of tombs.

Carol: I was a nurse by profession, so it was really interesting to me to see how the ancient temples are filled with instruments that we still use: forceps, knives, a small saw, an instrument to help with births. They actually had clinics.

Rob: I’m an accountant by profession, so every time I saw an Egyptian dollar I started to calculate its value. 

When did you meet?

Rob: We met 51 years ago.

And you still hold hands.

Rob: You have to give your partner time to do his thing.

Carol: Along with love, understanding and plenty of patience.

Do you still work?

Carol: We worked hard all our lives, now we’re traveling. We’re basically farmers.

Rob: But we only started being farmers 20 years ago. Before that, we lived in the city.

Carol: We bought a ranch in 1973, but Rob was still working as an accountant.

Rob: It was no great pleasure for me to sit in an office all day, so when our eldest daughter finished school, we struck roots in White River. We have a grove of macadamia trees.

“White River” sounds like the title of a romance novel.

Rob: We live 15 kilometers from the national park where all the wild animals are. It’s nice. We go there a lot.

Carol: It was a big change.

Rob: It’s a far calmer life. But things changed over time: Today you have to be an economist to be a farmer. You need to learn about supply and demand, you have to be alert.

What do you grow?

Rob: We have 60,000 laying hens and a grove of 15,000 macadamia trees whose fruit we export to China. We also had cows, pigs, horses, sheep, geese and large ducks.

Carol: And four children – two boys and two girls. The boys are continuing the business, and one daughter lives next to us.

What does a typical day on the farm look like?

Carol: We start at 7 A.M. and collect all the eggs.

How many eggs are there?

Carol: Ask the accountant.

Rob: Something like 50,000 eggs a day. They’re collected and placed in a machine that sorts them by size and then packages them by the dozen, 4,000 cartons a day.

How much is an egg worth?

Rob: The prices change all the time. The best time to sell eggs is, of course, Easter, but on average 12 eggs will cost 14 rand, which is about a dollar.

Really cheap.

Rob: So maybe we have to start exporting our eggs here.

Do you eat eggs?

Rob: Yes, we like them.

Carol: I like hardboiled eggs especially.

Rob: I like soft fried eggs best, but it’s not good for a marriage – you have to remember to take them out in time.

Do people prefer eggs of a certain size?

Carol: Large is best; medium-sized eggs usually go to hotels.

How long do hens go on laying?

Carol: We buy the hens when they’re 18 weeks old, and at 20 weeks they’re already laying eggs. When they get to 60 weeks we sell them – there are people who buy them for food. Being a hen is not a good life. You sit in a cage all day and then your head is cut off.

Rob: They’re nice, the hens, but I like the trees better: They make a lot less noise.