Mi casa, su kosher casa

Two enterprising New Yorkers come up with an easy kosher vacation option in tropical Costa Rica

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

A 1.5 acre property sitting on a mountain in Guanacaste, surrounded by tropical forest and overlooking the Pacific Ocean (Courtesy Kosher Casas)
A 1.5 acre property sitting on a mountain in Guanacaste, surrounded by tropical forest and overlooking the Pacific Ocean (Courtesy Kosher Casas)

Two New Yorkers who wanted to make vacations easier for kosher travelers are hawking private luxury villas in Costa Rica, with fully kosher kitchens and an option for private chefs.

Kosher Casas is what Bryna Landes and Eve Berman are calling their vacation villa concept, which they conceived after packing suitcases full of kosher pots, pans and cutting boards for their own family getaways.

It was Landes, a marketing executive, who first came up with the idea after spending a vacation in Costa Rica. She had arranged through a travel agency for a private villa with a kosher kitchen and meals cooked by a private chef.

It ended up being “an amazing vacation, everyone was raving about it,” she said.

One of the best parts was not having to bring along cans of tuna fish and their own kosher pots and pans, usually a requisite for kosher travelers heading to destinations outside New York, Florida or Israel.

“I hate the schlepping and the food gets boring,” said Landes.

She figured she could turn it into a business. Landes, a marketing executive, partnered with Berman, a property management executive and fellow parent she’d met after chairing a successful event together at their children’s school.

They headed to Costa Rica again — Berman had also been there with her own family — to hunt down appropriate villas that would fit the needs of their potential clients.

They targeted three vacation areas, Manuel Antonio, Guanacaste and Arenal. None of them is close to the synagogue, which is located in San Jose. Manuel Antonio is the closest to the commercial city, at approximately 2.5 hours away from San Jose, while Guanacaste is around 4.5 hours away and Arenal is about three hours away.

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Then they had to put together a kosher kitchen travel kit that could be moved from villa to villa.

The Jewish community in San Jose is small, with a population of around 4,000, most of whom aren’t religious, but it does have a chief rabbi and series of supervisors who come to maintain the kosher food. The two women made contact with the chief rabbi for the Centro Israelita Synagogue in San Jose, Itzhak Prober, who helped them reach his inspectors.

“They have a huge blowtorch” for rendering ovens kosher, said Landes, laughing.

Everything gets koshered, including the patio grills.

There are other companies that offer luxury villas for kosher travelers. Villas of Distinction, a New York-based company, includes 16 properties on its website that can be koshered, including a private island in Tahiti and one of the top vacation villas in the world, a private home in Anguilla with its own executive chef and kids’ services.

There are also individual homes for rent in the Caribbean that can offer kosher kitchens, and Premium IV St Barts offers kosher concierge services on the island, importing frozen kosher meals for customers.

The difference between Kosher Casas and its competitors, said Berman, is in the sheer number of villas they’ve targeted in Costa Rica, and their ability to kosher any of those homes.

They put together a typical kosher kitchen kit and bought two sets of dishes, glasses, cutlery and pots and pans — “times 12,” said Landes — immersed them in a mikvah, packed them up and handed them over to the synagogue’s executive director, who is working for Kosher Casas by preparing each home for the next arrival.

They also compiled a list of chefs and a video in Spanish and English, explaining to the chefs what it means to cook kosher food, even Costa Rican style. The pricing for the chefs varies widely, from around $180 for three meals a day to $500 a day. Some families have hired chefs for the entire stay, while others opted for one or two meals during the vacation.

If clients don’t want a private chef, they can have their fridge stocked with a typical kosher menu, including schnitzel, brisket and meatballs, as well as kugels and hummus.

The pair put up their website in August and have had 15 bookings since then.

“A lot of people really want to go to Costa Rica,” said Berman. “And if they’re not going right now, they intend to go.”

The travelers are mostly couples or families, or multi-generational families, said Landes. Sometimes only some of the travelers are kosher but opt as a group for a kosher casa to make things easier for the kosher participants.

And unlike vacation rental sites such as Airbnb or VRBO, where houses are often the full-time homes of the owners, all the Kosher Casa homes are vacation homes, although they may be used by the owners during certain times of the year.

A five-bedroom villa with a patio overlooking the beach in Guanacaste (Courtesy Kosher Casas)
A five-bedroom villa with a patio overlooking the beach in Guanacaste (Courtesy Kosher Casas)

Landes and Berman looked for villas that were well-appointed, with private pools, en suite bathrooms and plenty of activity options nearby. They also range widely in size, from two bedrooms, sleeping four people, to villas with space for as many as 24.

“We feel a responsibility,” said Berman. “These are families, and they’re working hard for their money and you want to make sure that the house is everything they want it to be.”

“People ask very specific questions,” added Landes. “I can’t just not know, I wanted to be able to say, ‘I’ve been there, I think this house is better for your family.’”

The Kosher Casas offerings generally include a concierge or property manager who takes care of the house and handles the other details, like car rentals and transportation for the clients.

Berman said they tried to keep their prices low, because they didn’t want to price themselves out of the vacation market or appeal only to the well-off.

Now Landes and Berman are getting other requests, like whether they could arrange a temporary synagogue in Guanacaste or a minyan in Manuel Antonio, as clients look toward Costa Rica for designation weddings and bar mitzvahs, or for Passover.

“I think it’s going to evolve a bit,” said Landes.

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