WASHINGTON (JTA) — Jaime Daremblum's father could not move to the United States because of American immigration quotas.
Instead, he settled in Costa Rica, one of the few Latin American countries that granted visas to Jews and others fleeing Europe on the eve of World War II.
Now, Daremblum, the first Jew to serve as Costa Rica's ambassador to the United States, sees his service here as an important way to give back to his country, which became a safe haven for many Jews.
"For my wife and for myself, it was a way of giving back to the country that was so generous and hospitable to our parents and grandparents," Daremblum said in a recent interview.
Daremblum, 57, was appointed in May to be ambassador by newly elected President Miguel Angel Rodriguez. The two men have been friends since high school and went to law school together. And for the last 12 years, Daremblum has served as Rodriguez's foreign policy adviser, primarily on issues dealing with the United States.
Coming to Washington as his country's representative seems natural for Daremblum, who has many ties to the United States.
His paternal grandfather came to New York early in the century to work as a tailor before moving back to Poland.
"Jews in those years regarded Poland as Jewish land; they didn't know what was going to happen afterwards," said the ambassador.
Daremblum traveled to the United States many times with his father, who came on business and would also take his son to Manhattan's Lower East Side to hear socialist speeches and see Yiddish plays. Daremblum is fluent in Yiddish.
Later, having received several fellowships, including a Fulbright, Daremblum came to the United States in the 1960s to study at Tufts and Harvard universities. He later worked in Washington as an economist at the International Monetary Fund for three years.
Daremblum and most of the 3,500-strong Jewish community in Costa Rica were raised in traditional homes and schools. Today, the mainstream of the Jewish community is modern Orthodox, said Daremblum, who maintains a kosher home.
The Costa Rican Jewish community, which is centered in the capital of San Jose, was started in the late 1920s and early 1930s by immigrants who came from the small shtetls of Poland.
"Costa Rica has provided really a very ample space for Jews to preserve their individuality and their identity, and that's very important," he said, noting that Jews there have largely escaped the anti-Semitism and violence that have plagued other Latin American countries.