Porto (also Oporto) is a port city in northern Portugal, on the Douro River. Porto had a vibrant Jewish community before the establishment of the Portuguese kingdom in 1143. One of its three Jewish neighborhoods was called Monte dos Judeus (Jews’ Hill). A synagogue was located on the Rua da Sinagoga (Synagogue Street), which is now Rua de Sant’Ana (Saint Ana Street). To live in the town, Jews needed the permission of the Bishop of Porto.
In 1386, King John visited the city and ordered Jews to be concentrated in one place, which became the Jewish Quarter of Monchique. The area was surrounded by a wall and the only entrance was through two iron doors adorned with Hebrew allegories. The Jewish Quarter had its own officers and a certain degree of autonomy from the town, including a court to resolve religious issues. A synagogue was constructed with the approval of the king in 1388.
The synagogue was confiscated in 1554 for use by the Order of Santa Clara. Stairs adjoining the ruins are still known as Escadas de Esnoga (the Synagogue Steps), and an inscription unearthed in 1875 reveals that the synagogue had been dedicated by Don Judah.
With the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, Porto received an influx of Spanish Jews, including some 30 families who arrived as a group under the illustrious rabbi Isaac Aboab. On December 5, 1496, the Edict of Expulsion of the Jews from Portugal was signed by King D. Manuel I, and the synagogues and cemetery were destroyed, the houses of the Jewish people were looted, and many Jews died, while others accepted their conversion to Catholicism or emigrated. Jewish communal life in Porto was reduced to underground Marrano activities.
Today, on the Rua da Vitória (Victory Street) in the heart of the old Jewish Quarter, a plaque commemorates the expulsion and honors the Jews who kept their faith.
In 1536, the Court of the Holy Office or Inquisition was introduced in Portugal and an auto-da-fé took place in Porto on February 11, 1543. Local public opinion was so disapproving, however, that no additional inquisitorial spectacles were permitted. In 1618, however, 150 “New Christians” were detained and their assets confiscated, which spurred many of the others to migrate.
The Jewish community did not emerge again until the end of the 19th century, when a few dozen Ashkenazim settled in the city.
In 1920, when Arturo Carlos de Barros Basto set out to revive Judaism among the Marranos, the Comunidade Israelita do Porto became the center of his activities. He became the community’s first President. Barros Basto, himself a convert to Judaism, was approached in 1925 by some Portuguese citizens who said they were descendants of Jews victimized by the Edict of Expulsion and the Inquisition. They attended church, were baptized and uncircumcised, ate pork, but secretly practiced Jewish rituals. They had been cut off from the Jewish world and practiced a religion referred to as Marranism.
As part of the effort to reclaim the Jewish identity of the Marranos, the Jewish Theological Institute was established to provide Jewish education and train young crypto-Jews to be guides in their birth communities.
In 1927, the congregation Mekor Ḥayyim was organized with the expectation the Marranos would convert. Not one did, however, and they continued to practice Marranism.
One explanation is that the halacha-observing members of the community did not consider the Marranos Jewish and the Marranos would not agree to convert because they considered themselves Jewish. The Marranos also did not want to abandon rituals that were not permitted by Jewish law.
In 1938, the Kadoorie Synagogue was completed, housing both the congregation and an affiliated seminary for religious studies. It was partially funded by brothers Lawrence and Horace Kadoorie, wealth Jews from Hong Kong, in honor of their father Sir Elly Kadoorie, and their mother, Lady Laura Mocatta Kadoorie. The synagogue is the largest in the Iberian Peninsula.
Kadoorie Mekor Haim Synagogue
The Jewish Community of Porto sheltered hundreds of refugees who passed through the city during World War II. One of the Jews who passed through Porto was Ralph Baruch, who later became the Chairman of the Viacom Media Group in the United States.
Barros Basto was the President of the Jewish Community of Porto for 25 years. During that time, crypto-Jewish families in most of Portugal assimilated and intermarried with non-Jews. Still, in 1961, on the eve of his death, Barros Basto said, “One day, I shall be vindicated!”
It took more than four decades before a number of Marranos completed Orthodox conversions to Judaism. After a long period without any spiritual leaders Ashkenazi Rabbi Daniel Litvak was recruited in 2012. Three years later, Sephardi Rabbi Yoel Zekri joined the community. The Community was officially recognized by the Government as a religious community rooted in Portugal in 2013.
Today, the Porto Rabbinate is recognized by the Rabbanut Harashit of Israel and the organization has a Beit Din, synagogues, mikvaot, kosher restaurants, structures for kashrut, a youth center for achdut, cemetery and gives tzedakah via a vast network of synagogues around the world in close cooperation with Chabad Lubavitch.
President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa visited the Porto synagogue in 2019 and declared, “On behalf of Portugal and the Portuguese I thank the Jewish community for a whole history of dedication to our common Homeland.”
The Jewish Community of Porto (Comunidade Israelita do Porto/Comunidade Judaica do Porto) supports the development of Jewish life and religion and provides moral and material assistance to Jews and Jewish organizations. The community has renovated its synagogue, opened a Jewish museum and produced a documentary on Barros Basto.
The mission of the Jewish Museum of Porto is to educate visitors about the historic and cultural importance of the Jews in Portugal and of Portuguese Jews worldwide, with particular emphasis on the Diaspora of Sephardic Portuguese Jews and the history of the Jewish community in Porto.
The Jewish Education Center, which opened in 2019, provides courses for professional development of teachers in Portuguese secondary schools. The subjects of the course include the history of the Jewish People, Jewish identity, the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, and the stigma of collective guilt.
The Jewish Community of Porto is also involved in a global project in cooperation with the Porto Roman Catholic Diocese to provide aid to the needy and education and films to promote tolerance.
In 2021, the Holocaust Museum of Porto opened in 2021. The first Holocaust museum in Portugal has a reproduction of Auschwitz prisoner barracks, a memorial room with walls carrying the names of Holocaust victims and a study center. The museum’s objectives include:
- Teaching the Holocaust to the public and to school students.
- Providing professional development to educators.
- Creating exhibitions on specific Holocaust themes.
- Encouraging and supporting research related to the Holocaust.
- Honoring the millions of people who perished in the Holocaust as well as the hundreds of thousands of refugees.
- Paying tribute to the Righteous among the Nations.
- Organizing Porto’s annual commemoration of Yom HaShoah and United Nations Holocaust Memorial Day.
- Fighting the historical revisionism that seeks to deny the Holocaust.
- Fighting the historical revisionism that seeks to trivialize the role of the Jews.
- Fighting antisemitism in all its forms.
The Portuguese Prime Minister spoke about Jewish history in Portugal and saluted the community in Porto:
Today, the Jewish population of Porto is approximately 500, the largest it has been since 1496.
N. Slouschz, Ha-Anusim be-Portugal (1932), index; Pinho Leal, Portugal, antigo e moderno 12 vols. (1873–90); L. Piles Ros, in: Sefarad, 6 (1946), 139; 7 (1947), 357; H. Beinart, in: Sefunot, 5 (1961), 75–134. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: H. Baquero Moreno, in: Revista de história (Pôrto) 1 (1978), 7–38 [rep. in idem, Marginalidade e conflitos sociais em Portugal nos séculos XIV e XV (1985), 133–60]; A. Paulo, in: Miscelánea de estrudios árabes y hebraicos 23:2 (1974), 93–102; idem, in: Proceedings of the 6th World Congress of Jewish Studies, vol. 2 (1976), 61–69; G.J.A. Coelho Dias, in: Humanística e teología 4 (1983), 321–58; H. Vasconcelos Vilar, in: Revista de história económica e social, 21 1987), 29–37.
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved;
Cnaan Liphshiz, “Jewish community shaped by the Inquisition opens Portugal’s first Holocaust museum,” JTA, (January 13, 2021);
Jewish Community of Oporto.
Kadoorie Mekor Haim Synagogue photo: ComunidadeIsraelitaPorto licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.