“We want to see Jewish life thriving again in the heart of our communities,” said E.C. president Ursula von der Leyen. “This is how it should be.”
In recent years, Portugal has become home to thousands of Jews. The choice of this country may provide the inspiration and serve as a model for what the European Union does, in fact, need.
Once again, Portugal is on the Jewish map. Small Jewish communities, mainly consisting of recently arrived Sephardim, are growing and strengthening throughout the country, even in less populated areas than the capital.
Cascais, a town in the district and metropolitan area of Lisbon, is home to the largest Chabad center in Europe, and two families in the organization work together to aid the whole country. Their enthusiasm is unmistakable. They believe that Portuguese Judaism will be a serious matter in the future. The most recent Chabad couple is Sephardic, not Ashkenazi, which is unusual in that New York-based organization.
The best example of the revitalization of Jewish life in Portugal is the Jewish Community of Oporto (CIP/CJP). According to Gabriela Cantergi, an official at CIP/CJP, “Our Community does not exist to please everyone, but rather to honor the Jewish community that was expelled from this city in the late 15th century, and to be a strong religious, cultural and social organization in Portugal and abroad.”
Led by Israeli rabbis, the main synagogue of the city—the Kadoorie Mekor Haim Synagogue, although there are others—has seven hundred official members originating from more than 30 countries. These congregants are engaged in the arts, sciences, medicine, music, law, banking and sports. The overwhelming majority, however, are business people who have invested billions of euros in Portugal in recent years.
The community also strives to welcome foreign Jewish students enrolled at the universities of Oporto, including them in community activities and creating meeting centers for them.
“Our aim is to foster friendship and possibly future marriages between students who come on their own to this country, mainly from France,” said Noemie Amar, of CIP/CJP’s department of religion.
Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa paid a visit to the Oporto community in 2019, and was visibly impressed by the Jewish ambience of “Portugality” he found there. This was also the case recently with a much-travelled Jewish author who commented about the last Yom Kippur ceremony that she had never heard search passionate prayers and songs in a synagogue. That is the result of six years of non-stop minyanim on Shabbat and holidays.
In 2012, the synagogue building looked to be on the verge of collapse. It was extensively refurbished the following year, and important religious ceremonies were held there. In 2014, the Community inaugurated a kosher hotel and Jewish tourists poured into the city. After 2015, the law granting Portuguese nationality to Sephardic Jews increased both the number of community members and Jewish cultural events.
The Jewish community of Oporto has built and developed new Jewish centers, prayer rooms, kosher restaurants, a Jewish museum, a Holocaust museum and a library. It also organizes conferences and concerts and has established a newspaper.
It will soon be opening an art gallery with the millennial story of the Jews in Oporto. Flor Mizrahi, a professional painter and longstanding member of CIP/CJP, is the project coordinator and eager to see it completed.
“I won’t live forever,” she said. “And, as a Sephardic Jew, I wish to leave my personal mark. In early 2022, the group of artists coordinated by me will have the gallery-museum ready.”
The Jewish Museum of Oporto, created by CIP/CJP in partnership with B’nai B’rith International, recounts the millennial history of the city’s Jewish community, its expulsion, the return of Moroccan, Gibraltarian and Venetian Sephardic Jews in the 19th century, the failed attempt to convert the Bnei Anousim to Judaism in the 1920s and 1930s and German, Russian and Polish Ashkenazi Jews in the 20th century, as well as the “major Sephardic influx of the 21st century,” basically motivated—said Rose Mousovich of CIP/CJP’s department of culture—”by the nationality that Portugal grants to Jews of Portuguese origin.”