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Torah and horas celebrate renewed Jewish life in Portugal

200 Jews converge to reopen the city of Porto’s refurbished synagogue in a weekend retreat

Men dance on the ground floor of the Mekor Haim synagogue while celebrating the new Torah acquisition in Porto, Portugal, January 30, 2016. (Rachel Delia Benaim/The Times of Israel)

PORTO, Portugal — Just before sunset on a balmy Friday evening in January, nearly 200 Jews congregated at the entrance of the Mekor Haim synagogue in the northern Portuguese city of Porto to welcome a new Torah into a restored holy space.

Men danced with the ornately decorated Torah scroll on the freshly painted sanctuary’s main floor, while separately, women danced and sang from the second floor balcony.

Typical of Porto’s native Sephardic style, the Torah was encased in ornate jewel-encrusted silver. Written in Jerusalem and completed in London, the scroll only arrived in its new home a few hours before the event, which was billed as the largest gathering of Jews in Portugal since the Inquisition.

Coming from 14 countries, including Israel, the UK, and Turkey, some 200 Jews converged on Porto’s refurbished synagogue in a weekend retreat celebrating the return of vibrant Jewish life to Portugal.

The facade of the Mekor Haim synagogue in Porto, Portugal, January 30, 2016. (Rachel Delia Benaim/The Times of Israel)
The facade of the Mekor Haim synagogue in Porto, Portugal, January 30, 2016. (Rachel Delia Benaim/Times of Israel)

This return is thanks, at least in part, to a law unanimously passed by the Portuguese Parliament unanimously last year that allows Jews to apply for citizenship if they can prove their families were expelled during the Inquisition.

Under this law, in addition to the more general requirements for attaining Portuguese nationality — living in Portugal for at least six years is barred — applicants also must establish that their families have been part of a Sephardic community in their home countries and prove that they or relatives have a traditionally Portuguese Jewish surname.

This genealogical and religious information must be certified in a document issued by the Jewish community of Porto or Lisbon. After submitting the required paperwork for consideration, applicants typically wait up to six months for an official response.

The process is rigorous, though not as stringent as the parallel Spanish citizenship application, which immigration expert Leon Amiras, who was present at the retreat in Porto, called “needlessly intricate.”

Porto Jewish community spokesman Michael Rothwell poses in front of the ark in the Mekor Haim synagogue in Porto, Portugal, January 28, 2016. (Rachel Delia Benaim/The Times of Israel)
Porto Jewish community spokesman Michael Rothwell poses in front of the ark in the Mekor Haim synagogue in Porto, Portugal, January 28, 2016. (Rachel Delia Benaim/Times of Israel)

As of October 2015, only three of over 200 applicants have been granted citizenship. The Jewish community of Porto told The Times of Israel that by December, it had certified applicants from 28 countries, with a remarkable 64% from Turkey. Some of the weekend retreat participants, like many of those from Turkey and France, reported using the occasion as an opportunity to take a pilot trip to Portugal.

Mayor of Porto Rui Moreira addressed the community on Friday night from the hand-carved altar and proudly announced there is no anti-Semitism in his city. Rabbi Doron Achiel, whose congregation in London has close ties to the Porto Jewish community, said that he feels comfortable walking in the street with his kippa, and has experienced no harassment. This was reinforced by Michael Rothwell, the spokesman of the Porto community, who said that the synagogue and its members have not experienced anti-Semitism in recent memory.

Istanbul-based Keren Mizrahi hopes to relocate to Porto for this very reason. She applied for Portuguese citizenship in November, and is currently awaiting official approval. “But it’s coming,” she quipped in Hebrew while sitting in the Mekor Haim synagogue sanctuary. She hopes her two adult children will join her.

Construction of the Moorish-influenced Mekor Haim synagogue, the largest on the Iberian Peninsula, was completed in 1938. And as synagogues and Jewish businesses were burnt to the ground in Germany, Porto’s Jews helped transport refugees fleeing the Nazis.

The synagogue’s unique architecture is a large part of its charm. Inspired by Moroccan synagogues, the ark containing the community’s Torah scrolls is regal and intricate. The entire structure, made from wood, marble, and stone, was hand-carved and took over a decade to complete, according to Rothwell, the community spokesman. The sanctuary’s walls, covered in traditional Portuguese tiles of blues, greens, and purples, also contain hand-painted verses from Jewish scriptures, echoing themes of Jewish peoplehood and God’s divinity.

Interior of Mekor Haim synagogue, also known as the Kadoorie Synagogue, in Porto, Portugal on January 28, 2016. (Rachel Delia Benaim/The Times of Israel)
Interior of Mekor Haim synagogue, also known as the Kadoorie Synagogue, in Porto, Portugal on January 28, 2016. (Rachel Delia Benaim/Times of Israel),

The second of the synagogue’s four floors contains both the women’s section and what used to be a religious school. It’s now a modest three-room museum chronicling the local Jewish history. Local schoolchildren from northern Portugal visit the synagogue and museum on school trips to learn about Jewish religion and history, including a group of 75 students who visited last week.

There are currently 100 Jews living in Porto, from 17 countries worldwide. The community maintains strong ties with the Orthodox London community, and many of its board and religious committee members live in the UK for most of the year. Whereas two years ago it was a struggle to find a prayer quorum on Friday nights, with the British Jews’ support and local PR campaigns, there are now full services each Shabbat.

The Porto community is gearing up to once again become a hub of Jewish life. In addition to restoring the synagogue and inaugurating a new heated mikveh, or ritual bath, the board is in the process of establishing a Jewish cemetery on the outskirts of the city and opening a religious day school.

Photo in the Porto Jewish Museum of the Jews being burned at the stake in Portugal during the Inquisition in Porto, Portugal on January 28, 2016. (Rachel Delia Benaim/The Times of Israel)
Photo in the Porto Jewish Museum of the Jews being burned at the stake in Portugal during the Inquisition in Porto, Portugal. (Rachel Delia Benaim/Times of Israel)

“I want this to be not only a synagogue, but also a community center,” explained Isabelle Lopez, the president of the community and granddaughter of the synagogue’s legendary founder, Captain Artur Carlos Barros Basto, the “Portuguese Dreyfus.”

Boston native Jeff Rosenberg, who moved to Porto last year, is skeptical that the nationality laws will impact the local Jewish community. Still, he called the unusually full synagogue a “wonderful surprise.” As a self-identifying cultural Jew, Rosenberg appreciates that the rabbi is welcoming to all Jews, and feels that the entire community “is quite proud of this impressive building and the legacy of Jewish history in Porto and Portugal.”

Devorah Elijah, a synagogue board member who is instrumental in revitalizing the community, pointed out the potential for Porto to become a new center of Jewish life amid rising international hostility toward Jews.

“The first time I walked into the synagogue,” the British resident said, “I felt at home. This is a place to make Jews, all Jews, feel at home.”

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