Anytime she traveled off the proverbial beaten path, Riverdale’s Bryna Landes, like many Jews who keep kosher, used to pack heavy. Really heavy. Suitcases full of canned tuna, shrink-wrapped bread, pots, pans and peelers amounted to a portable kosher kitchen.
Then one year she had a villa kashered before her arrival in Costa Rica, a destination popular for its exquisite beaches, tropical scenery and security in a volatile region. Landes lined up kosher meat and hired a private chef to cook for her family. “It was life-altering,” recalls Landes, a former event-marketing professional from Montreal who travels with her husband and three teenage children.
“When I got back, everyone asked me, ‘How did you make that happen?’ And I realized there was a market for it.”
This year, Landes and Eve Berman, a friend and fellow parent from SAR Academy in Riverdale, launched Kosher Casas, a business aimed at giving kashrut-observant Jews the same experience Lnades had: a choice of 90 properties across Costa Rica that run the gamut of size and price. All are koshered by the local religious authority before each arrival and stocked with kosher meats and groceries. Clients can pre-order from a wide selection of kosher prepared foods, hire a private chef, or assemble any combination of options.
With a new generation of observant, globe-trotting Jews, you might think this sort of service would be more widespread. But after combing the Internet and asking around, I couldn’t come up with anything similar — a full-service kosher lodging network in a vacation area that isn’t in America or Israel. “There is a niche, and there is a need,” said Marc Cohen, a founder and executive vice president of Kosher Mansions, a Brooklyn-based firm launched three years ago that brokers kosher rentals. “When you go to a hotel, you can’t leave the kids upstairs and hang out in the lounge. People are looking for a homey experience.”
Most kosher rentals cluster in the tri-state area and South Florida/ Miami — areas with ample kosher dining and shopping. While numerous outfits can broker the rental of a kosher home in Europe or elsewhere, Kosher Casas may be among the first to offer a total kosher experience in a place not known for its kosher infrastructure.
Both Landes and Berman say the response has been enthusiastic, with winter booking fast — especially yeshiva week — and the first clients having vacationed just after Kosher Casas launched in late summer.
Daniella Fuchs and her husband, Jeff Wechselblatt, were among those initial clients. They had enjoyed Costa Rica as a childless couple and had always wanted to return with their children, so when they heard about Kosher Casas, they booked right away.
“It was just so easy,” said Fuchs, an organizational psychologist and fellow SAR parent, of her vacation last summer. “You could go out all day and come home to a home cooked meal, with your ingredients, in your kitchen.” With three boys, various allergies and two weeks of vacation, “to know we were going to have meals, and be taken care of, that was very comforting.”
Fuchs said Costa Rica is an ideal family destination: “There is a kosher infrastructure, it’s not a very expensive country, and there’s so much to do for families.” Indeed, with beach-lined coasts on both the Atlantic and Pacific, rainforests, jungles and a well-oiled tourism industry that caters to recreational sports, Costa Rica is decidedly trendy.
“The weather is always great,” said Berman, who had worked in real estate investment banking and also vacationed in Costa Rica before starting Kosher Casas. The country is a relatively short flight away from New York; many locals, who are known for their friendliness, speak both Spanish and English. “And with what’s going on in the world today, Costa Rica is a pretty safe place,” Berman added, noting that she and Landes felt comfortable traveling throughout the country as women alone.
Given the demand for foreign travel, however, Landes and Berman say they hope to expand to more destinations. Amazingly, laying the groundwork for this complicated venture took just a year — but it was a year of pounding the oft-uneven pavement of rural Costa Rica. The two women negotiated with a kosher slaughterer and prep kitchens, sourced glass dishes and stainless-steel pots, and enlisted the help of rabbinic authorities and Jewish residents in San José, where the 4,000-member, mostly Orthodox Costa Rican Jewish community is based at the Centro Israelita Zionista.
Then there was the challenge of arranging to coordinate services between San José — a gritty, not particularly tourist-friendly city — and the three far-flung resort areas where villas are located.
Precisely because this is not a vacation in the well-trodden precincts of Miami, New Jersey or Tel Aviv, personalized service is key to making guests feel comfortable. “It’s a very individualized approach,” said Landes, who offers a Shabbat package with hot plates, hot water heaters and tea lights. “Regardless of your level of kosher observance, we wanted to re-kosher every time. I want everyone to feel comfortable that the kashrut is at a high level.”
That level, obviously, does not come cheap — but kosher travelers are generally willing to pay the premium. Kosher Casas rentals range from about $3,500 a week to more than $25,000 a night, with variables including time of year and add-on options like golf carts, butlers and chefs.
Landes and Berman spend hours on the phone advising clients on the minutiae of a particular property: Do the families need a large, open space? Two homes next to each other, for a bigger group? For Fuchs, as a parent, it was reassuring that Landes knew the size and depth of the pool, as well as whether the property had a swing set in the back.
“Because we keep kosher and we have vacationed there ourselves, we know every home,” Landes said.
They also know how tiresome it can be to travel while kosher. Landes said she has always relished adventure — but there came a low point a few years back when her husband, Joshua, had forgotten to pack the Riverdale family’s cooking pot until the last moment and tossed it into his hand luggage, where it was removed by Westchester Airport guards for inspection.
“I’m the guy with the pot!” he shouted from the other side of the security checkpoint, eliciting titters as the guards looked on askance. Joshua Landes is no drug smuggler, but he wouldn’t have been the first kosher traveler to risk having his loot confiscated at security. Every time a family tries to haul a suitcase full of frozen meat across borders, there is a chance that a gimlet-eyed guard won’t let it pass, “and then you have nothing,” said Berman.
“Also, nowadays, paying for [shipping] luggage. … Can you imagine, a whole container of frozen meat, what that weighs? More than your plane ticket!”
That’s why, until now, many kosher travelers venturing to the Caribbean (or farther afield) have opted for kosher resorts, kosher bed-and-breakfasts and the like. Carting around heavy luggage is a drag; so is eating out of a suitcase for two weeks in a place where kashrut is nonexistent and local cuisine is vegetarian-unfriendly.
“If it were just myself and my husband, I could survive,” reflected Landes, a sentiment probably shared by many of her clients. But kids are picky eaters. And while you could theoretically buy a blowtorch and spend three hours koshering the grill, Berman said, “on your vacation, do you really want to?”
For kosher travelers abroad, “eating the local fare is not an option, and we wanted to change that,” Landes said. “Part of the vacation is eating real food. I notice that is the first thing people ask when you come back from a trip — not even about the place, but how did you eat? We Jews are people who like our food.” ✦