If managing travel-related minutiae gets you down, you can take solace in the fact that even seasoned tour operators feel challenged juggling the details. When tour operator Lisa Schachter-Brooks decided to build a Jewish-centric tour that would depart from the norm, she knew she had her work cut out for her.
Studying with world-class teachers at the Israel-based Melitz Center for Jewish-Zionist Education sparked her interest in tour planning, she says.
"There, I worked with teens and young adults, and traveled quite a bit. What I felt was lacking from these tours was a way of being connected to the places and people we visited. These were essentially passive experiences, and I knew then that I wanted to design tours where youth could have a more authentic experience, engaging with a destination's history and culture," explains Schachter-Brooks.
A serendipitous trip by her brother Stephen to Costa Rica in 1995 set the stage for her eventual deep connection with Costa Rica and Belize. "He really fell in love with the people, their land and their interest in preserving the rainforest so threatened by increasing development," she explains. "He launched a tour company to raise awareness about all this beautiful country has to offer."
In 1997, Schachter-Brooks joined his company, Costa Rican Adventures, now based in Berkeley, Calif. By 1998, she embarked on the first of what would be many Costa Rican Adventures-led "Jewish singles" tours to Costa Rica.
"This was during a time when many singles, wanting to vacation in Israel, changed their plans when they felt it was too dangerous to go there. They surfed the 'Net for alternate tour destinations and found our company."
Schachter-Brooks says that she looked for opportunities during these tours where participants could hang out with each other, and still celebrate ancient Jewish wisdom and traditions, like saying traditional Hebrew blessings, organizing special Shabbat dinners, making kiddish over the wine and breaking challah together.
But working with teens is Schachter-Brooks' real passion, and in 2004 she got the opportunity to do just that, collaborating with former director Suzie Rose on what is now her specialty, Costa Rican trips that cater to Jewish teens from 14 to 17 from a wide range of backgrounds.
"Some of our teens are steeped in the Orthodox tradition, while others are not. Clearly, this presents a scheduling challenge: to honor the Orthodox tradition, we can't travel on Shabbat."
Teens interested in joining the tour get an information packet that covers the availability of kosher food during the trip (emphasizing "kosher-style" rather than strict kosher), and how Shabbat is observed.
Because Schacter-Brooks wants to be mindful and sensitive to everyone's needs, she says she puts lots of energy into making sure that everyone feels accommodated.
Teens traveling with Costa Rican Adventures this summer will take part in their EarthConnect program, a three-week immersion tour based in Costa Rica or its neighboring country, Belize. They will trek through the rainforest; ride class III and IV white-water rapids in the Pacuare River; stay at the homes of residents of the Monteverde region; contribute to ongoing tikkun olam projects at the Kekoldi Indigenous Reserve; and visit Punta Mona ("Monkey Point"), Costa Rican Adventures' private farm where the Schachter-Brooks family has created a Permaculture Center dedicated to developing sustainable gardening techniques.
There's a substantial Jewish community in Costa Rica's capital, San Jose, where Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, Germany and Turkey migrated almost a century ago.
There, the EarthConnect teens will get the opportunity, says Schacter-Brooks, to meet families and share a Shabbat dinner with them in their homes.
When teens, having experienced Costa Rica, were casting about for other destinations, she added Belize to their itinerary.
Says Schachter-Brooks: "It's such a wonderful place, and has so much to offer in terms of incredible wildlife and indigenous culture. It's also the site of many Mayan ruins."
A visit to the Actun Tunichal Mucknal cave is one of the tour's highlights, which also include home stays in a Mayan village in the Toledo district and scuba-diving in South Water Caye.
Following in the footsteps of Costa Rica's former pensionado program, Belize attracts North American and British nationals with its attractive retirement incentives, adding more variety to its already diverse mix of Mestizo, Creole, Mayan and Garifuna people.
For more information, call Costa Rican Adventures at 1-800-551-7887 or go to: www.costaricanadventures.com.