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Isaac Aboab de Fonseca

(1605 - 1693)

In 1642, when the 600 Jews of Recife (Pernambuco), Brazil, felt secure enough to establish a synagogue and worship openly, they summoned Rabbi Isaac Aboab de Fonseca of Amsterdam, Holland, to serve as their first hocham (spiritual leader). Aboab de Fonseca became, thereby, the first congregational rabbi in the New World.

When the Portuguese explorer Cabral landed in Brazil in 1500, he was accompanied by at least one person of Jewish birth who had been captured in India and forcibly baptised. Portuguese conversos continued to settle in Brazil for more than a century. Then, in 1630, the Netherlands drove the Portuguese out of the Pernambuco region.

When the Portuguese military departed from Recife and its environs the representatives of the Holy Inquisition left with them. Some of the Portuguese conversos who remained behind took the opportunity to openly profess their Judaism. When additional Jews from Amsterdam arrived in Recife, the Jewish community, estimated to be as large as 5,000 individuals, organized congregation Kahal Kodesh Zur Yisroel. Rabbi Isaac Aboab de Fonseca — known to his followers simply as Aboab — served this congregation through the best and worst of times.

Born in Portugal in 1605, Rabbi Aboab was a rabbinic prodigy: even in his teens, he was considered highly learned, a charismatic speaker and a respected teacher. When Aboab was a child, his parents fled Portugal for France and then Amsterdam, where the young boy became a student of the great hocham Isaac Uzziel. Aboab possessed a powerful intellect and writing skills. Historian Leon Kayserling summarized Aboab’s contributions by calling him "an excellent Hebrew poet who left us magnificently enduring works," including several translations of Hebrew kabbalistic writings into Spanish, and vice versa.

At age 21, Aboab was called to the pulpit of Amsterdam’s Congregation Bet Israel, one of three Jewish synagogues in the city. In 1639, the three congregations merged, and Aboab shared the role of hocham. When he chose to relocate to Recife in 1642, his departure was greeted with sadness.

For the first four years under Aboab’s leadership, Recife’s congregation Kahal Kodesh Zur Yisroel thrived in an atmosphere of religious toleration characteristic of the 17th century Dutch. The Portuguese, however, had retained control of the Bahia region of Brazil and never ceased longing to recapture Pernambuco. In 1645, a Portuguese Jesuit, Joam Fernandes Vieyra, convinced the King of Portugal to regain Recife because "that city is chiefly inhabited by Jews, most of whom were originally fugitives from Portugal." Vieyra continued, "They have their open synagogues there, to the scandal of Christianity. For the honor of the faith, therefore, the Portuguese ought to risk their lives and their property in putting down such an abomination."

In 1646, Vieyra and his army attacked Recife. Hoping to divide and conquer, Vieyra offered the city’s Jews protection on the condition that they not participate in the battle. The Jewish community unanimously rejected his offer and took up arms with their Dutch comrades.

The Portuguese besieged Recife off and on for a total of nine years, unable to defeat the inhabitants yet unwilling to retreat. During this prolonged ordeal, Recife’s Jews gave their food, property and lives in defense of their freedom. Throughout the siege, Aboab encouraged all the resisters—Jewish and Dutch alike—and led prayers asking God to protect the colonists from their enemies.

Recife held out through nine years of deprivation. In a poem he later wrote, Aboab described his congregation’s ordeal: "Many of the Jewish immigrants were killed by the enemy; many died of starvation. Those who were accustomed to delicacies were glad to be able to satisfy their hunger with dry bread; soon they could not obtain even this. They were in want of everything and were preserved alive as if by a miracle." It is the oldest known Hebrew text written in America that has survived to the present day.

In 1654, the Dutch garrison could no longer hold out and the governor agreed to surrender. To their credit, the Dutch insisted that the Portuguese not slaughter the Jewish inhabitants as a condition of surrender. The Portuguese honored this proviso but demanded that the Jews leave Brazil. Some departed for Surinam, some for Guadeloupe, but a majority wished to return to Amsterdam. (One such boatload of 24 Amsterdam-bound passengers was accosted by pirates and robbed, then blown off course and finally landed in New Amsterdam — the first Jews to settle in North America.) Aboab, abandoning the place he had called home for 13 years, traveled with those who successfully returned to Amsterdam.

Held in high esteem by his former Amsterdam congregants, Aboab was reappointed as hocham in the synagogue and made teacher in the city’s talmud torah, principal of its yeshiva and member of the city’s bet din, or rabbinic court. He died in 1693 at the age of 88, having served the Jewish community of Amsterdam for 50 years after his return from Recife. In his latter years a man of letters, teaching and contemplation, the adventuresome Isaac Aboab de Fonseca had been, from 1642 to 1654, America’s first rabbi, first Hebrew poet and a man who risked his life for Jewish religious freedom.

Sources: American Jewish Historical Society