Portuguese Jews: the few, the proud
RIO DE JANEIRO, June 10 (JTA) – It’s an exciting time for the few Jews of Portugal.
The country’s Jewish community recently celebrated the centenary of the Lisbon Synagogue – officially called Shaare Tikva, or Gates of Hope.
On its 100th anniversary, the synagogue is being fully restored, and a Jewish museum is being built.
At the same time, preparations are under way for the first-ever Congress of the Portuguese Jewish Communities in 2004.
Efforts are beginning to create an umbrella organization, the Federation of the Portuguese Jewish Communities, to serve the estimated 1,200 Jews in Portugal. Government officials put this number higher, at 3,000.
The federation would unite communities in Lisbon, Oporto, Belmonte and the Algarve.
Lisbon, where the Jewish community has 1,000 members, is the largest and wealthiest community.
The expansion of community activities meant that the community’s needs could no longer be met by improvisation and volunteering.
To that end, the Lisbon community recently hired a professional executive director: Brazilian Marcos Prist, 33, who previously served as a Jewish activist and community leader in Sao Paulo.
“My goal is to engage Jews at all ages” and integrate the community, Prist told JTA.
Prist’s arrival highlights the growing ties between Portuguese Jewry and Brazil’s 120,000 Jews. The communities are connected by a common language and the Internet.
But if high-tech ties are kick-starting Portuguese Jewry, a historic building helps to tie them together – and the commemoration at Shaare Tikva was loaded with symbolism.
Designed by the prominent architect Ventura Terra, the Lisbon Synagogue – inaugurated a century ago – crowned more than 50 years of work by the city’s Jewish community.
Shaare Tikva was one of the first synagogues built in Portugal since the forced conversions and the official destruction of Portuguese Jewry in 1497 by the Inquisition.
“There is a strong symbolism around this for all Portuguese Jews,” said Esther Mucznik, vice president of Lisbon’s Jewish community.
Portuguese President Jorge Sampaio presided over the ceremony at the synagogue, which is Orthodox.
“This synagogue is a place of worship and gathering of a community, but it is also an important Portuguese cultural and religious asset,” Sampaio said. “The future of the Jewish community of Lisbon will contribute, I am certain, to the preservation of a history and of a heritage from which we all will benefit, because knowledge generates undertstanding.”
Despite the excitement, Portuguese Jews face a paucity of numbers. There are not enough people for a daily minyan, Rabbi Shlomo Vaknin says.
Difficult times are nothing new for Jews in Portugal.
Only after the severity of the Inquisition declined at the end of the 18th century – it was abolished in 1821 – did Jewish families decide to return to Portugal, many from Morocco and Gibraltar.
Along with their successful integration into everyday Portuguese life, the first Jewish families immediately sought to create a community life, establishing houses of prayer and purchasing land where they could bury their dead according to Jewish tradition.
The first official synagogue dates from 1813, and formed the embryo of the city’s current Jewish community.
Throughout the 19th century, various attempts were made to construct a building worthy of Jewish worship. Great difficulties were encountered, particularly because Judaism was not officially recognized by the royalist Portuguese regime.
Recognition of the Jewish religion was gained only with the separation of church and state implemented by the republican regime in 1912.
The Lisbon Jewish community remained demographically stable until 1961. Then, the outbreak of the Colonial War in Angola – a former Portuguese territory – caused many young people and even whole families to emigrate, particularly to Israel, to avoid the draft.
The community is a mixture of Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews: Moroccans who arrived at the end of the 19th century, Russians and Poles who escaped the pogroms in the first half of the 20th century. The community’s numbers are stable, with one or two marriages per year.
In addition to the synagogue, the Lisbon community operates a charitable association, burial society and social club, and holds regular activities for community members.
There’s also a Jewish studies magazine and Portugal-Israel Friendship Association.
Recently, the community sent eight students to an event sponsored by a pan-European Jewish students group.
Two years ago, the community initiated a bulletin that now has 2,500 subscribers around the world.
There is little anti-Semitism, according to Lisbon community president Samuel Levy. As evidence of that, Shaare Tikva recently held an interfaith service at which Jewish, Muslim and Catholic clergy made pleas for peace in the Middle East.
Peace, Levy says, “depends on the capacity to accept one another’s differences.”