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(photo credit: Courtesy)
Israelis and Jews around the world may now enjoy the taste of a new kosher cheese when they travel to Portugal.
Serra da Estrela cheese was granted kosher certification just recently, said Rabbi Daniel Litvak, Israel's emissary for the nonprofit organization Shavei Israel, which works towards strengthening the relationship between Israel and Jews in the Diaspora.
The recognition of the cheese as kosher is especially significant as it is the first dairy product that was given a kashrut certification in Portugal since Jews were expelled from the country in 1497, said Michael Freund, Shavei Israel's chairman and founder.
In addition, Jews now have "the possibility to eat a product that until now was not possible to consume," Litvak said. "The people who wanted to eat kosher had a problem."
The cheese is made from goat's and sheep's milk and comes from the Serra da Estrela mountains, which are the tallest peaks in Portugal standing at an altitude of almost 2,000 meters above sea level.
Serra da Estrela is well-known cheese in Portugal, Europe and throughout the world, according to Shavei. Currently, it is only available in Portugal, but if demand for the cheese increases, it may be made available in other markets in the world, Litvak said.
The process of recognizing the cheese as kosher began when Litvak was contacted by Jose Braz, who owns the Queijos Braz cheese factory in CovilhÃ£, Portugal. Braz asked Litvak to give his cheese kosher supervision. Litvak said Braz's cheese sells well worldwide, so the motivation to grant this status was not for profit.
Braz, who wanted to reconnect with Judaism, disclosed that he was a descendant of the Anuism, a term used for Jews who were forced to leave Judaism but practiced in private. Anusim are often referred to by historians as "Marranos," which they consider a derogatory term, Freund said.
To grant this certification was "very symbolic" and essential to strengthening Jewish life in Portugal and strengthen their Jewish community, Freund said.
"In a place where the Inquisition once sought to obliterate any Jewish presence, Jewish life is once again beginning to flourish, and a growing number of descendants of the Anusim are seeking to rejoin the Jewish people. We must continue to encourage this important development."
"Nowadays, we are seeing a renewed Jewish presence in Portugal and I have no doubt that that presence will continue to grow stronger in the years to come," said Freund.
According to Shavei Israel, about 1,000 Jews live in Portugal today, and are primarily located in Lisbon, Porto and Belmonte.
But approximately 7,000 Portuguese citizens stated their religion to be Judaism in the latest national census about three years ago, and most are believed to be Anusim. There are also tens of thousands of descendants of Anusim who reside in Portugal today, according to Shavei Israel.
Freund wants the Anusim to reconnect with their Jewish heritage and Israel.
"I think we need to do whatever we can to facilitate their return," Freund said, but it was ultimately up to them whether they wanted to make aliya.
"I think that the State of Israel and the Jewish people have a historical, moral and religious responsibility to reach out to the Anusim," he said. "Nowadays we are seeing a renewed Jewish presence in Portugal and I have no doubt that that presence will continue to grow stronger in the years to come."
Freund said he expected more and more Anusim to come forward and reconnect with their heritage. In the past several years, Shavei Israel has helped over 500 Anusim to undergo a process of a return to Judaism and conversion, and over 75 percent of them had chosen to stay in Israel, Freund added.