Portugal Virtual Jewish History Tour
By Rebecca Weiner and Mitchell Bard
From the Golden Age of Discovery to the Inquisition, Portuguese Jewry went from the heights of wealth and success to the depths of anguish and despair.
The history of Jews in Portugal is like that of many other places, where success and sadness go hand in hand. Walking along Lisbon’s streets, remnants remain of Portugal’s rich Jewish life. Sparks of Portugal’s past can be found in the remote mountain villages where some of the last remaining Marrano communities can still be found practicing Jewish rituals behind closed doors, fear of persecution still looming.
Today, the Jewish community of Portugal numbers approximately 3,500 people.
Learn More - Cities of Portugal:
Algarve | Beja | Castelo Branco | Chaves | Costa de Prata | Costa Verde | Covilha | Hormuz | Lisbon | Madeira | Moncorvo | Montanhas | Oporto | Planícies | Setuba
Golden Age of Discovery
Expulsion from Portugal
Marrano Rennaisance & Customs
World War II & the Holocaust
Relations with Israel
Legends say that Jews first came to the Iberian peninsula during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar in the 6th century BCE. James Finn argued the initial Jewish involvement in the area could have been as early as 900 B.C.E., based on reports of two ancient Hebrew inscriptions, one mentioning Amaziah, king of Judah, and a second marking the grave of King Solomon’s treasurer, Adoniram.
The existence of a significant Jewish settlement on the peninsula by 300 CE is apparent from the edicts of Elvira, which proscribe “taking food with the Jews” and single out the Jewish group in a number of dicta. A tradition among the Sephardi Jews ascribes their arrival in Iberia to Roman times in the wake of the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. and subsequent dispersion toward Europe.
Jews lived and remain active in the social and commercial life of the peninsula during the Visigoth and Muslim periods of occupation 5th-8th-century C.E.
When Portugal emerged as a distinct national entity under Affonso (Henriques) I (1139–85), a number of wholly Jewish districts existed, including communities in Lisbon, Oporto, Santarém, and Beja. Affonso was employed as his treasurer Yahia ben Yahi, thereby initiating the pattern of Portuguese rulers enlisting Jewish talent in the management of affairs of state. Ben Yahi also became the first chief rabbi of the Portuguese Jewish community. His grandson, Jose ben Yahi, was appointed High Steward of the Realm by Henriques’ successor, King Sancho I (1185-1211).
Under King Affonso III (1248–79), Portugal attained total independence and fixed its historic geographic boundaries and during his reign, the classic Portuguese model of Jewish communal life emerged. The crown recognized the Jewish community as a distinct legal entity, headed by the royally appointed arraby mor. The arraby mor, in turn, named seven dayyanim, one for each of seven regional centers; Santarém, Oporto, Moncorvo, Viseu, Faro, Evora, and Covilhã, each with his own administrative staff to adjudicate both civil and criminal cases. Their decisions were subject to appeal before the arraby mor, who visited the district courts annually for this purpose, accompanied by an av bet din (“chief justice”) and an executive staff.
The vast power of the arraby mor was balanced by the right of the people to select the local rabbis – who, however, were paid by the crown and required its confirmation – and to elect the tovei hair who directed the daily functions of the community. In the larger towns, Jews generally lived together in a juderia such as Oporto’s Jews’ Hill or Loulé’s Jews’ Vale.
Portuguese Jewry prospered under these separatist conditions, continuing the attentiveness to learning that marked the peninsula’s formative years. The community’s autonomy amid officialness was the crucible in which the proud, enduring Portuguese Sephardi heritage was shaped.
Tensions arose between the Jewish community, who chose to remain faithful to their religion, and the local clergy and middle/lower classes. The clergy wanted to invoke restrictions of the Lateran Council against the Jews, but King Dinis (1279-1235) resisted and reassured the Jews that they did not have to pay tithes to the church.
The Jews were, nevertheless, heavily taxed as the price of remaining unmolested, including a special tax intended to redeem the “accursed state of the race,” and a tax based on the number of cattle and fowl slaughtered by the shochetim.
The unsympathetic Affonso IV (1325–57) increased the direct tax load, reinstituted the dormant requirement that Jews wear an identifying yellow badge, and restricted their freedom to emigrate. The emboldened clergy accused the Jews of spreading the Black Death in 1350, inciting the populace to action.
During the short rule of Pedro I (1357–67) – who employed as his physician the famed Moses Navarro – the deterioration of the Jewish position was halted.
Golden Age of Discovery
The 13th and 14th centuries were known as Portugal’s Golden Age of Discovery, in which Jews made a major contribution to Portugal’s success. In the early 14th century, more than 200,000 Jews lived in Portugal, which was about 20 percent of the total population.
Jews lived in separate quarters but had the freedom to move within the country; these quarters remained until the Jewish expulsion from Portugal. Each of these quarters had its own synagogue, slaughterhouse, hospital, jail, bathhouse, and other institutions. A rabbi served as the administrative and legal authority within the commune.
Portugal was home to many famous Jews during this period. Abraham Zacuto wrote tables that provided the principal base for Portuguese navigation, including those used by Vasco Da Gama on his trip to India. Guedelha-Master Guedelha served as a rabbi and doctor, and astrologer for both King Duarte and King Alfonso V. Isaac Abravanel was one of the principal merchants and a member of one the most influential Jewish families in Portugal. Another figure, Jose Vizinho, served as a doctor and astrologer to King John II. John II also sent the Jew, Abraham de Beja, on many voyages to the East.
Places of Jewish Settlement in Portugal, 1200–1497
Jews became the intellectual and economic elite of the country. Jews were involved in all aspects of the explorations, from financing the sailing fleets to making scientific discoveries in the fields of mathematics, medicine, and cartography. Many were employed as physicians and astronomers as well royal treasurers, tax collectors, and advisors. It was common to see Jews adorned in silk clothing, carrying gilt swords, and riding beautiful horses. They were given preferential treatment by the kings.
Jealous of the Jews’ success, anti-Jewish sentiment arose in the peasant and middle classes. Fights between Jews and Christians became more common after the influx of Jews from Spain into Portugal in 1391.
By the 15th century, the Jews were playing a major role in the country’s monarchical capitalism, as that economic system has been characterized. The concentration of Jews in Lisbon and other population centers rendered obvious the group’s business success and – as a result of their access to royalty – their disproportionate prominence in society.
The treatment of Jews fluctuated from ruler to ruler. During the reign of King John I (1385-1432), Jews were forced to wear a special habit and obey a curfew. Joao’s successor, King Duarte (1433-1438), introduced laws forbidding Jews from employing Christians. A reprieve took place during King Alfonso V’s rule (1438–81), when many of these restrictions were repealed.
The general populace was seething with envy and religious hate. In 1449, many homes were sacked, and a number of persons were murdered during a riot in Lisbon. Local assemblies in 1451, 1455, 1473, and 1481 demanded that steps be taken to reduce the national prominence of the Jew.
In 1492, King Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain expelled all the Jews from Spain. More than 150,000 Spanish Jews sought refuge in Portugal, where both the general and Jewish culture approximated their own (see Spanish and Portuguese Literature).
King John II (1481–95) allowed them to enter because he was preparing for war against the Moors and wanted to take advantage of their wealth and expertise in weapon-making. At a price of 100 Cruzados a family, 630 wealthy Jewish families were granted permanent residence. A number of craftsmen skilled in making weapons were also allowed to become permanent residents. Rabbi Isaac Aboab was permitted to settle with a group of 30 important families at Oporto. The vast majority, however, paid eight cruzados per head for the right to remain in Portugal for up to eight months. At the end of those eight months, a dearth of sailings made their scheduled exit impossible, so the king declared the remaining Jews slaves.
Another tragedy befell the Jewish community in 1493 when the king ordered the separation of Jewish children from their parents. Seven hundred children were sent to the newly discovered island of Saõ Tomé off the west coast of Africa in an unsuccessful scheme to populate this wild territory. (In 1993, descendants of those children held a ceremony commemorating the event.)
Expulsion from Portugal
Following King John’s death in 1494, Manuel I the Fortunate (1495–1521) ascended to the throne and restored the Jews’ freedom, and erased the harsh distinctions between the displaced Spanish and the native Portuguese Jews. Hopes for a tranquil period were dashed, however, when his legitimacy as heir to the throne was challenged. To solidify his position and bring the entire peninsula under a single monarch, he married Princess Isabel of Spain. Isabel told Manuel that she would only marry him if he expelled the Jews. Their marriage contract was signed on November 30, 1496, and five days later, he issued a decree forcing all Jews to leave Portugal by October 1497.
Manuel was never content with his decision, mainly because he appreciated the economic value of the Jews to the country. To make it more difficult for Jews to leave, he made Lisbon the only viable port of exit. He also tried to convert as many Jews to Christianity as he could to keep them in Portugal. Neither persuasion nor torture yielded success. The chief rabbi, Simon Maimi, died resisting conversion.
On March 19, 1497 (the first day of Passover), Jewish parents were ordered to take their children, between the ages of four and fourteen, to Lisbon. Upon arrival, the parents were informed that their children were going to be taken away from them and were to be given to Catholic families to be raised as good Catholics. Children were literally torn from their parents, and others were smothered, some parents chose to kill themselves and their kids rather than be separated. After a while, some parents agreed to be baptized, along with their children, while others succumbed and handed over their babies.
In October 1497, about 20,000 Jews came to Lisbon to prepare for departure to other lands. They were herded into the courtyard of Os estaos and were approached by priests trying to convert them. Some capitulated, while the rest waited around until the time of departure had passed. Those who did not convert were told they forfeited their freedom and would become slaves. More succumbed. Finally, the rest were sprinkled with baptismal waters and were declared “New Christians” (Conversos).
Conversos cautiously began to emigrate, prompting Emanuel to respond on April 21, 1499, by withholding the right of emigration from the New Christians, as this new class was officially designated, but technicalities aside, the Portuguese majority continued to regard them as Jews.
While many of the New Christians accepted their religion, many chose to continue practicing Judaism behind closed doors while publicly practicing Catholic rituals; they became known as Marranos or crypto-Jews. The Portuguese majority still considered the New Christians Jews, despite their outward affiliation with Christianity. Claims against the Marranos were presented to the king, along with a list of crypto-Jews.
In the spring of 1506, more than 2,000 New Christians were massacred during a Lisbon riot. Afterward, King Manuel executed 45 of the main culprits who had incited the mob; nevertheless, if the Conversos had had any thoughts of finding solace in the religion thrust upon them, such riots dissuaded them.
As early as 1516, King Emanuel, suspecting that such a situation existed, proposed to Pope Leo X that an Inquisition – on the Spanish model – be authorized to ferret out backsliding New Christians. John III (1521–57) enlisted Enrique Nuñez, an apostate from the Canary Islands, to mingle with the Marranos and report on their practices.
In 1527, Nuñez presented King John with an exposé of Marrano life, appending a list of Crypto-Jews. Popular support for a Portuguese Inquisition surfaced in 1531 when the populace attributed the earthquake of that year to divine retribution for New Christian duplicity. Unable to resist these pressures, Pope Clement VII authorized the Inquisition, with King John’s confessor Diogo da Silva as the first inquisitor general.
Attempting to counter this, the Marranos dispatched Duarte de Paz to Rome. Armed with unlimited funds, Paz was to attempt, at the very least, to deny the Inquisition the right to confiscate the property of those condemned, recognizing that this would be an incitement to prosecution. The ensuing diplomatic fray lasted half a century.
On April 5, 1533, the Marranos won a suspension of the Inquisition, but on May 23, 1536, it was reauthorized, to be effective three years hence. The first auto de fe (trial) took place in Lisbon on September 20, 1540, but in 1544, the Inquisition was again suspended.
Permanent tribunals were established again starting in 1547 at Lisbon, Evora, Coimbra, and in Portugal’s Far East outpost Goa. Ultimately, in 1579, the right to confiscate the culprit’s property also accrued to the inquisitors so that every wealthy Portuguese not certified as pure-blooded (limpieza de sangre) lived in terror.
The right to seize and confiscate the property of the accused led to the arrest of every prominent New Christian family. Once arrested, death was only escaped if one admitted to Judaizing and implicated friends and family. Other sentences included public admission of the alleged sins, the obligatory wearing of a special penitential habit, and burning at the stake. Urged by greed, eventually, even genuine Christians were martyred, young Don Lope de Vera y Alarcon (1620–1644) being the most notable example.
Among those murdered were many famous Jews of the period, including Isaac de Castro Tartas, Antonio Serrao de Castro, and Antonio Jose da Silva, who was later known as “The Jew.”
Soon the tribunal authorities were able to construct lavish palaces, proffer large sums to receive condemnatory testimony, and to produce spectacular autos-da-fé, which competed with the bullfights in drawing crowds of tens of thousands.
Crypto-Jews sought precarious safety among the ruling classes and clergy; in time, this tendency resulted in a significant percentage of Marrano blood being found within Portugal’s ruling circles – as bitterly documented by Mario Saa.
The surest method of evading the Inquisition was to abandon the peninsula, and a constant flow of Conversos escaped – some with daring (see Samuel Nunez), some with luck – to the communities of the Marrano Diaspora, where many of them quickly reverted to normative Judaism. Some ex-Marranos, however, such as Spinoza’s teacher Juan de Prado, were not found acceptable by congregational leaders, giving rise to a responsa literature debating the status of the New Christians and ex-Marranos in Jewish law.
Attempting to evade the Inquisition, many Portuguese Marrano families fled to Amsterdam, Salonika, and other places across the Old and New worlds. In 1654, 23 Portuguese Jews arrived in New Amsterdam (New York) and became the first Jewish settlers in the United States. The stream of refugees did not stop until the end of the Inquisition in the late 18th century during the reign of Joseph Emanuel I (1750–77) through the initiative of Sebastião José de Carvalho ê Mello, Marques de Pombal (1699–1782), who was the power behind the titular monarch.
In a series of acts from 1751 to 1774, Pombal deprived the Holy Office of real power, placing it under secular control, and restored the civil rights of the New Christian class, even bullying certified Old Christian families into contracting marriages with New Christians. The last auto-da-fé took place in 1791; on March 31, 1821, the Inquisition was abolished in Portugal.
During the nightmare centuries of Portugal’s Inquisition, more than 40,000 persons were implicated, of whom 30,000 were sentenced at autos-da-fé. A total of 750 of these were staged, at which 29,000 persons were reconciled to the Church, 600 persons were burned in effigy, and 1,200 persons were burned at the stake. The majority of the victims were accused of Judaizing. The terror that weighed on the Marranos who managed to avoid detection cannot be measured.
Around 1800, Portugal decided to invite Jews back into the country and reverse Portugal’s economic decline. The first Jewish settlers to come were British. Tombstones, written in Hebrew and dating back to 1804, can be found in a corner of the British cemetery in Lisbon. Other Jewish immigrants came from Morocco, Tangiers and Gibraltar. Official recognition to the Jewish community was not granted until 1892. After granting the community recognition, the Shaare Tikvah synagogue was built in Lisbon. However, the synagogue was not allowed to face the street.
In 1912, the new Portuguese Republic reaffirmed the community’s rights. The Jewish community was able to maintain places of worship, a cemetery, and a hevra kadisha (burial society) and could slaughter animals in accordance with Jewish law, register births, deaths, and marriages and collect charity.
Conversions to Catholicism were still frequent, though in the 1920s, splitting families; this tendency declined by the 1950s.
Marrano Rennaissance & Customs
Historians writing at the beginning of the 20th century supposed that the last Marranos had by then disappeared. In 1917, however, a mining engineer named Samuel Schwarz discovered a community of Marranos in the remote northern region near Belmonte. Apparently, they had succeeded in maintaining their identity in the remote mountain areas, marrying among themselves, harboring memories of Jewish observances, being called Jews by their neighbors, and holding to the belief in a single, personal deity who would redeem His people at the end of days. While Schwarz was publicizing his discovery, a Portuguese hero of Marrano descent, Captain Arturo Carlos de Barros Basto, decided to convert to Orthodox Judaism at the age of 33. He became an engineer, served as a professional soldier, was decorated after World War I for his bravery, and eventually was promoted to captain. Known as the “Portuguese Dreyfus,” Basto was dismissed from the army because he was a Jew.
After leaving the army, Captain Basto established a synagogue in the city of Oporto. He also began writing a weekly newspaper and began visiting remote villages, often in full military regalia. Accompanying him on these trips were two medical doctors who performed circumcisions when needed.
The synagogue of Oporto grew and moved into a new building donated by Ellie Kadoorie, a wealthy Sephardic Jew. The “Kadoorie” synagogue was built on property bought and donated by Baron Edmond de Rothschild of Paris. Another synagogue was established in Braganca with its own rabbi.
Basto also established a yeshiva in Oporto, which ran for nine years educating more than 90 students. These activities did not go unnoticed by the government, especially after an estimated 10,000 families across Portugal admitted to practicing Judaism in secret. Trumped-up charges were brought against the captain, and he was court-martialed, stripped of his rank, and forced to close the yeshiva. Thus, the Marrano renaissance ended.
Marranos continued to practice Judaism privately in their own homes. However, they abandoned any obvious identifying Jewish practice, such as circumcision, mikveh, and the celebration of any public holiday. The celebration of Yom Kippur and Passover was done a couple of days late to confuse the Inquisitors. Shabbat lamps were hidden inside clay pots, so those outside could not see the light burning. Jewish women also led prayer services since this was the job normally performed by males.
If a community member died, a minyan gathered at the home of the family but made it appear as if their attendance was just done to console the mourners.
Catholicism did make some inroads into the lives of the Marranos, resulting in a unique combination of Jewish and Christian rituals and terms. For example, Marranos worshiped Saint Moses and Saint Queen Esther and celebrated Little Christmas (which roughly coincided with Chanukah). Marranos also prayed with a Judaized version of the Lord’s prayer.
The phrase, “I enter this house, but I do not adore sticks or stones, only the G-d of Israel,” was muttered before entering a Catholic Church and is still recited by Marranos.
Because sacred Jewish texts could not be used, the Marrano community created their own prayer books, one of which is called the Rebordelo Manuscript (Rebordelo is a remote village in Portugal). Inside are prayers for different occasions, which seem to date to the early 18th century. The book also contains a list of recommendations on how to live an ethical life. Also, there is a folk ballad about a wandering Jewish troubadour who elopes with a girl trying to avoid marriage to a rich man. Besides these books, the only reference available to the Marrano community about Jewish life and history is the Old Testament.
Many of these Marrano practices are still being performed behind closed doors and shaded windows. In 1920, in the town of Braganca, no child under the age of 12 was permitted to attend religious meetings out of fear of the child innocently exposing their secret faith.
In 1987, David Augusto Canelo, a non-Jew, wanted to write a book about the last Crypto-Jews and only obtained interviews with the community members after agreeing not to use their names. Community members still fear being “tried” by the Inquisition.
In 1991, a French TV documentary crew wanted to film the ceremony of matzah preparation performed by the Marrano community. The crew was allowed to tape the ceremony, which was still performed secretly. A doorknock in the middle of the filming scared many of the participants, even though the Inquisition had ended more than 150 years earlier.
World War II & the Holocaust
Approximately 380 Jews were living in Portugal during the outbreak of World War II, and an additional 650 Jewish refugees from Central Europe were granted “resident” status. After France fell to Nazi Germany, Portugal adopted a liberal visa policy allowing thousands of Jewish refugees to enter the country; however, those of Russian origin or birth were excluded. More stringent restrictions were made in immigration policy, however, from late 1940 to spring 1941 and the numbers declined.
During the Holocaust, Aristides de Sousa Mendes disobeyed government orders and issued visas enabling Jews to travel from France to Portugal. He was dismissed for disobedience and died impoverished. For his efforts, he was later recognized as one of the “Righteous Among the Nations,” Portugal’s only honoree.
During the second part of the war, Portugal agreed to give entry visas to those coming via rescue operations on the condition that Portugal would only be used as a transit point. Portugal also joined other neutral countries in the efforts made to save Hungarian Jewry. More than 100,000 Jews and refugees were able to flee Nazi Germany for freedom via Lisbon. All of the Jews and refugees in Portugal survived the war.
Following the revolution in Portugal in 1974 and the ensuing unrest, about half of Portugal’s Jewish population left the country and immigrated to Israel, Brazil, Canada, and the U.S.
Today there are about 600 Jews living in Portugal, as well as a Marrano community numbering close to 100 individuals. Marrano communities were discovered by Samuel Schwartz, a Polish mining engineer, in remote mountain villages. Many of the Marranos did not believe Schwartz was Jewish because he openly identified himself as a Jew, and they believed they were the only Jews still living. The communities were only convinced of his Jewish identity after he recited the Shema prayer. In recent years, many members of the Marrano community decided to reconvert to Orthodox Judaism.
In 1997, Portugal’s National Assembly marked the expulsion from Portugal and commemorated the development of exiled Portuguese communities throughout the world. A special session attended by dignitaries was held in the capitol.
That same year Portugal’s prime minister announced that he would investigate government documents relating to the transfer of gold from Nazi Germany into Portuguese banks.
The largest Jewish community of about 300 can be found in Lisbon, where there are two synagogues, one Sephardic, Shaare Tikva, and one Ashkenazi, Ohel Yaacov (Ohel Jacob). Lisbon’s Jewish community is centered around the Comunidade Israelita de Lisboa, or the Jewish Community of Lisbon, a community center that houses Shaare Tikva. The Sephardic synagogue offers traditional services, study groups, children’s activities, and cultural events and houses documents and religious objects dating back to the 1300s.
Ohel Jacob is the only Ashkenazi synagogue in the Iberian Peninsula and was originally established as an Orthodox congregation. The synagogue was inactive for a period, but following its reconstitution in the 1990s, the Bnei-anussim, or children of Marranos, who were interested in returning to Judaism, were welcomed at the Ohel Jacob synagogue.
Ohel Jacob is housed on the second floor of a rundown building at Avenida Elias Garcia 110. The HeHaver Jewish Association, which currently administers the Ohel Jacob building, allows Kehilat Beit Israel to use the synagogue for the practice of Masorti, or Conservative Judaism, which has welcomed Bnei-anussim back to the community. Beit Israel is under the rabbinical authority of Rabbi Jules Harlow. Today, the Bnei-anussim make up about one-
There is also a Jewish cultural center, a kosher butcher, a special slaughtering house, and a home for the aged in Lisbon. Jewish visitors to Lisbon may be interested in visiting the remains of the medieval Jewish quarter and Rossio Square, the site of the Palace of the Inquisition, where 1,300 Jews were burned at the stake. A collection of Jewish tombstones with inscriptions written in Hebrew can be found at the Archaeological Museum. In the National Museum of Ancient Art, there is a painting of Grao Vasco, a 16th-century Jew.
Located about 80 kilometers north of Lisbon is the seaside village of Obidos in the Costa de Prata region. A Jewish community lived in Obidos between the fifth and seventh centuries when the city was occupied by the Visigoths. Another Jewish community lived there between the eighth and twelfth centuries, while it was under Arab rule. In Obidos’s Jewish quarter, a synagogue can be found that dates to the end of the 12th century.
Also, in the Costa de Prata region, in the city of Tomar, an ancient 15th century Jewish synagogue and mikveh, one of the two surviving monuments of medieval Jewish heritage, can be found. The synagogue has become a national museum and features historic remains of medieval Portuguese communities. In 1993, a Yom Kippur service was held at the synagogue because of the large number of Jewish tourists.
In the Costa Verde region, a small Jewish community can be found in the city of Porto, which served as a major center for Jewish traders during the Middle Ages. One of the sites is the earliest known Jewish Quarter found in Portugal, now Rua de Santa Ana. Visitors can also visit the Kadoorie Synagogue as well.
In 1997, Portugal’s first new synagogue in 70 years was dedicated in Belmonte. The dedication ceremony was attended by Israeli President Ezer Weizman and Portugal’s President Jorge Sampaio. Many of the members of Belmonte’s Marrano community have reconverted to Orthodox Judaism. In Belmonte, there is also a mikveh.
Excavations of possible 15th-century synagogues are being undertaken in Evora, in the mountain village of Castelo de Vide, and in Valencia de Alcantara, which is on the Spanish side of the border.
In Evora, there is a stone with Hebrew inscriptions on it, dated 1378, which can be found in the Evora Museum along with a money box and bench from the Inquisition. Across the street from the Evora Museum in the Public library is a rare 1st edition copy of the “Almanac Perpetuum” written by Abraham Zacuto.
In 2013, Portuguese researchers discovered and cataloged hundreds of secret markings that Jews left on buildings in Seia, a municipality in north Portugal, during the 16th century after their forced conversion to Christianity. Researcher Alberto Martinho said the findings “elucidate the Jewish presence” in the region at that time.
Jews from around the world attended the rededication ceremony for Portugal’s oldest standing synagogue on April 23, 2015. The Sahar Hassamain synagogue is located on Sao Miguel Island, 900 miles from the Portuguese capital of Lisbon, and was rededicated following a restoration project started in 2014. Jose Oulman Carp, the president of the Jewish Community of Lisbon, stated at the dedication ceremony that “the renovation has been completed in a very thorough and professional manner with a lot of help from the United States, and from descendants of the big community of Jews from the Azores archipelago there.”
The building was restored to function as an Orthodox synagogue, but since there is only one Jewish resident on the island it will mostly be used as a museum and library specializing in Jewish heritage and literature. Oulman Carp said that he hopes the synagogue restoration encourages Jewish tourism to the area and local people to explore their Jewish heritage and the Jewish history of their island.
In 2015, Portugal adopted legislation to grant Portuguese citizenship rights to descendants of Jews who were expelled from and persecuted by Portugal more than 500 years ago. This means that Sephardic Jews who can prove their relation to Portuguese Jews who were expelled and mistreated by the Portuguese government can apply for dual nationality. Applicants are not required to travel to Portugal; however, they must produce evidence that demonstrates a connection to ancient Portuguese Jewry, which is scrutinized by Portuguese Jewish community institutions and government agencies. The application and review procedure can take several months. Unlike Spain, which now has a 2022 deadline, the application period is open-ended.
Three months after the passing of the law, in June 2015, 250 applicants were informed by the Portuguese government that they qualified for citizenship rights under the new law. The majority of these 250 approved applicants came from Turkey, but 15 applications were also sent from Israel and an equal number from the United States. By the end of 2021, 137,087 applications for citizenship had been submitted and 56,685 were approved.
Thanks to the legislation, the Jewish community in Porto has experienced a renaissance of involvement and interest. The Porto Jewish community was designated by the Portuguese government as one of two institutions tasked with vetting the citizenship applicants, bringing thousands of dollars in income and tourists from all over the globe. Most of the new income has been generated by citizenship application fees.
Relations with Israel
Portugal and Israel had low-level ties in the 1950s. In 1959, the Bank of Portugal and the Bank of Israel established financial relations. Diplomatic relations were not established until 1977.
The decision to allow Sephardic Jews to reconnect with their Portuguese roots inspired Israeli Foreign Ministry Advisor Ashley Perry to launch the Knesset Caucus for the Reconnection with the Descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities in October 2015.
In May 2023, the Portuguese parliament passed a resolution on the occasion of Israel’s 75th anniversary calling for the expansion of the Abraham Accords, increased economic and cultural cooperation between Lisbon and Jerusalem, and a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“This is the first time in history that such a vote has passed in Portugal,” Israeli Ambassador Dor Shapira said. “This is another important milestone in the relations between Portugal and Israel.”
Comunidade Israelita de Lisboa
Rua Alexandre Herculano, 59
Phone: 351 1 385 8604
Fax: 351 1 388 4304
Israeli Embassy of Lisbon
Rua Antonio Enes, 16
Phone: 351 1 570 251
Fax: 351 1 352 8545
Email: [email protected]
Chabad Lubavitch of Portugal
Rabbi Eliyohu Rosenfeld, Director
Mrs. Raizel Rosenfeld, Co-director
Lisbon, 1050-018 Portugal
Comunidade Judaica Masorti de Lisboa- Beit Israel
Rua Filipe da Mata 103 - 2º Andar 1600-070
Email: Adi Souza - [email protected]
Email: Information - [email protected]
Phone: (+351) 217975283
For more information on Jewish sites and cultural life in Portugal, contact the Portugal National Tourist Office: phone 212-354-4403/4 or fax 212-764-6137.
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Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.
Journey to Jewish Portugal, Portuguese National Tourist Office.
Cnaan Lipshitz, “New citizenship law has Jews flocking to tiny Portugal city,” Times of Israel (February 11, 2016).
Amanda Borschel, “Knesset caucus aims to ‘reconnect’ with descendants of Sephardi Jews,” Times of Israel, (October 14, 2015).
Judy Maltz,. “Portuguese citizenship law attracts 250 Jewish applicants, mostly from Turkey,” Haaretz, (June 24, 2015).
“Portugal’s oldest standing synagogue rededicated in São Miguel Island,” Haaretz, (April 23, 2015).
“Portugal to grant citizenship to descendants of persecuted Jews,” The Guardian, (January 29, 2014).
Arthur Benveniste, “500th Anniversary of the Forced Conversion of the Jews of Portugal.” Address at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, Los Angeles, (October 1997).
“Crypto Jews of Portugal,” The Sephardic Jews in Portugal. Lusa Web.
Eduardo Mayone Dias, “Crypto-Jews in Portugal - A Clandestine Existence., HaLapid.
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Mario Henrique Gomes van Grichen,” Sinagoga Obidos,” Saudades.
Rufina Bernadetti Silva Mausenbaum, “A Brief Outline of the Portuguese-Sephardim,” Saudades.
Rufina Bernadetti Silva Mausenbaum, “Secrets from a forgotten past,” Saudades.
“Portugal - Aristedes de Sousa Mendes,” Museum of Tolerance Online Multimedia Learning Center.
“Portugal’s Prime Minister Tell B’nai Brith it will establish commission to investigate its financial dealing with Nazi Germany,” B’nai Brith.
Michele Sanfilippo, “Tracing Jewish Roots,” Travel Agent, (March 29, 2000).
Tom Tugend, “Portugal’s few leading rich lives of culture, faith,” Jewish Bulletin of Northern California, (April 25, 1997).
“Hundreds of Jewish markings catalogued in Portuguese town,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency, (April 21, 2013).
Cnaan Lipshitz, “Portugal OKs 10,000 requests for citizenship by descendants of Sephardic Jews,” JTA, (July 17, 2019).
Cnaan Liphshiz, “Portugal has naturalized 23,000 applicants under Jewish law of return,” JTA, (November 6, 2020).
Cnaan Liphshiz, “Spain and Portugal have naturalized more than 90,000 descendants of Sephardic Jews since 2015,” JTA, (January 3, 2022).
“Portugal has granted Portuguese citizenship to 56,685 descendants of Sephardic Jews,” JNS, (February 8, 2022).
“In first, Portuguese parliament passes resolution supporting Israel,” Times of Israel, (May 19, 2023).