'The future of European Jewry is in our hands'

European Jewish leaders gather in Portugal’s Porto to observe community’s revival

The number of Jews living in the northern Portuguese city has tripled in recent years thanks to new citizenship law and the arrival of hundreds of French-Jewish medical students

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Leaders and members of the Jewish Community of Porto posing at the Portuguese city's Boeira Hotel on May 16, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)
Leaders and members of the Jewish Community of Porto posing at the Portuguese city's Boeira Hotel on May 16, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

PORTO, Portugal — Dozens of European Jewish community leaders convened in the Portuguese city of Porto on Monday for a conference on communal strategies, including lessons from how the city’s local Jews have attracted hundreds of new congregants.

“The leaders of the Jewish community of Porto can be a great example of how just a few individuals who believe in Judaism, in the future of Jewish life, can do magnificent work,” said Rabbi Menachem Margolin, the director of the European Jewish Association, a Brussels-based lobby group that hosted the conference in Porto.

Comprising about 1,000 members, the Jewish community of Porto has tripled in size in recent years, partly thanks to the passage in 2015 of a law that gives Portuguese citizenship to descendants of Jews who were expelled from the country during the Inquisition, which began in Portugal in 1536.

Aided by the boost in membership and by the arrival of hundreds of French-Jewish students at the local university, the community in recent years has augmented its synagogue — which for decades had been its sole possession — with a museum, a kosher meat shop, another synagogue and a Jewish cemetery.

“Even five years ago, when I arrived in Porto, it was a desert when it came to Jewish life,” said Ilan Cohen, a local 23-year-old Tunisia-born French-Jewish medical student who met his Jewish wife in Porto.

“Now there’s a robust Jewish presence and life and there’s a minyan every day at synagogue,” he said, using the Hebrew term for the quorum of at least 10 Jewish men required for some prayers according to halacha, Orthodox Jewish law.

Rabbi Menachem Margolin speaks at the annual European Jewish Association meeting held on May 16 in Porto, Portugal. (EJA)

The community’s growth has come with some tensions, though.

In recent months, Porto’s Jewish community has accused the government of antisemitism over a police investigation into the community’s handling of citizenship applications. Police said the investigation was over fraud and the community has denied any irregularities. To date, the investigation has not resulted in any indictments.

Margolin did not comment on the dispute, but said that regardless, “What has been achieved here can be inspiring for other small communities, which are now struggling.”

That was why the European Jewish Association chose Porto as the host city for its annual conference, whose title this year was “Shaping the Future of European Jewry Together,” Margolin said.

Dutch Chief Rabbi Binyomin Jacobs said at the conference that his community was increasingly being threatened by antisemitism and assimilation. His home, which is under constant police surveillance, has been vandalized five times in recent years, and last weekend he was accosted on the street twice by young men or teenagers who shouted slogans about Palestine at him, he said.

“I don’t have to turn on the news to know something’s going on in Israel. I just count the number of times police pass by our house,” Jacobs said.

Other members, including Jacky Benzennou, the head of the 250-member Jewish community of the Belgian town of Waterloo, said they were more worried about assimilation than antisemitism.

“We’re less affected by Jew hatred. The main threat facing us as a community is intermarriage,” Benzennou said, adding he was not certain of his community’s long-term viability.

“The future of European Jewry is in our hands,” Margolin said, responding to such concerns.

“The message from our conference in Porto is that if we find the strength to unite, build, and fight when we have to fight, then our future is guaranteed,” Margolin said.

The participants undersigned a statement urging “national governments who are preparing national plans on combating antisemitism, or who have already prepared plans, to decouple antisemitism from all other forms of hate and treat it in isolation.”

Antisemitism is a unique phenomenon requiring a tailored response, they said.

Officials who spoke at the conference, in person or remotely, included Israel’s Diaspora Affairs Minister Amichai Chikli; Elise Fajgeles, general secretary of the Inter-Ministerial Delegation for the Fight against Racism and Antisemitism; and her Portuguese counterpart, Pedro Bacelar de Vasconcelos.

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