Portugal sees important role of Jews in life over the centuries

“Our Portuguese heritage is an important part of our identity. Even for our young generation, it’s part of really who they are and we celebrate that with them.”

MEMBERS OF Portuguese-Jewish communities around the world meet on Zoom in October, 2020. (photo credit: screenshot)
MEMBERS OF Portuguese-Jewish communities around the world meet on Zoom in October, 2020.
(photo credit: screenshot)
Portugal has been in the spotlight lately, not just because of the nationality law granting citizenship to Sephardi Jews since 2015 – but also because of how welcoming it is to Jewish tourists and to Israelis who move there.
The reconstruction and promotion of Jewish heritage sites from Belmonte to Braganca, Porto and the Azores, has strengthened tourism, even in rural and isolated regions, attracting scores of visitors each year.
Since 2015, the Jewish population in Portugal has grown from 600 to about 4,000, a new peak from its 15th century population count in the tens of thousands. Now the authorities want to deepen social ties, and also to explore avenues for cooperation with Portuguese-Jewish communities.
On October 22, the Portugal Embassy to the US partnered with Sephardic Heritage International in DC (SHIN-DC), a Sephardi cultural NGO, to bring together Portuguese-Jewish communities from Philadelphia to Lisbon on Zoom. The event was initially planned as a dinner at the residence of the ambassador but the pandemic interrupted those plans.
Domingos Fezas Vital, ambassador of Portugal to the US, talked about the history of Portuguese Jews, highlighting how that narrative began in Roman times, how Jews were part of Portuguese society and what a historic mistake the expulsion of 1496 and the Inquisition had been. Because of the diverse and important role of Jews in Portuguese society, he said, “the kingdom subjected itself to what we would call today, a form of brain drain.”
Fezas Vital also addressed Portugal’s Sephardi citizens, stating, “We are grateful for the contribution you give to the diversity and richness of our society as your forefathers did before you, and trust that you will feel at home.”
Fezas Vital also acknowledged the essential role being played by the Israeli community in Portugal and addressed the issue of antisemitism, saying, “Perhaps now more than ever, we have the joint responsibility of preserving as much as we can the experience of the immense tragedy [of the Holocaust] that befell the Jewish people. It is the duty of us all to make sure those lessons are not forgotten and that it never happens again.”
The Portuguese ambassador also welcomed the Portuguese-Jewish communities: “When in Portugal I hope you will feel at home because it is indeed your home.” Representatives of those communities reciprocated.
In the Netherlands, community activist Nachshon Rodrigues Pereira thanked SHIN-DC and welcomed the ambassador’s remarks, saying, “We are very thankful that we are becoming more connected to the other Portuguese communities in the world and now to the Portuguese Embassy to the US.”
Rodrigues Pereira also said, “The Holocaust was an incredible blow to the community, and the truth is that even today, it is still struggling with that trauma, which caused it to become smaller and isolated.” However, he remains very positive about the future and heads a new Portuguese-Jewish community, Bendigamos – the youngest and fastest growing Jewish community in the Netherlands.
Rabbi Joseph Dweck, senior rabbi of the Portuguese-Jewish (S&P) community of the UK, expressed appreciation for the gathering, stating, “The ethos of the community is still intact and very strong and I believe that my role is one of a custodian, that I am holding the tradition, the thought, the approach of this beautiful, illustrious and historic community in trust and that it is to be maintained at all costs.
“For members of the community who seek to reestablish their Portuguese citizenship, it is a source of great pride for them to be able to reconnect to their Portuguese roots, as it is indeed a tremendous source of their Judaism and of their identity.”
Rabbi Albert Gabbai of Congregation Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia, who was born in Egypt and has roots among the Jewish communities in the Eastern Mediterranean of Portuguese origin, recounted how Portuguese communities were the first in America. He also remarked that Portugal’s attitude today is reinvigorating the Portuguese-Jewish communities: “We are very happy to reconnect to our motherland in Portugal.”
Rabbi Maimon Pinto and cantor Daniel Benlolo of Shearith Israel in Montreal both emphasized the importance of connecting to the other Portuguese-Jewish communities and to Portugal, with Pinto saying, “Our Portuguese heritage is an important part of our identity. Even for our young generation, it’s part of really who they are and we celebrate that with them.” 
In the same spirit, René David Levy Maduro, former president of Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue in Curaçao (the Snoa) spoke about some of the struggling Portuguese-Jewish communities in the Caribbean who nonetheless remain committed to their Portuguese-Jewish heritage. He and Phyllis Meit, curator of the Jewish Cultural Historical Museum, invited tourists to visit the museum and the adjacent Snoa – the island’s number-one tourist attraction.
Ending in Portugal, José Oulman Bensaude Carp, president of the Jewish community in Lisbon, welcomed everyone to visit Portugal and the Shaaré Tikvah synagogue in Lisbon.
As the meeting ended with the band Al’Fado’s innovative music program of Sephardic Ladino songs in a Portuguese fado style, SHIN-DC director Franz Afraim Katzir said, “The connections between Sephardic Jews and Portugal lie not only in our rich history but also in the promise of what lies ahead for the future.”
Ethnomusicologist Judith Cohen, who has done extensive field work in Portugal’s Belmonte Crypto-Jewish community, reported that Crypto-Judaism of Belmonte was recently declared formally one of the seven wonders of popular culture in Portugal, also reminiscing, “With most of that remaining community having moved to Israel, some of the old customs are fading away, even as Portugal recognizes the continuation of the really important role of Jews in Portuguese life over the centuries.”
The writer is the founding director of Sephardic Heritage International in DC (SHIN-DC) and commissioner on the governor of Maryland’s Commission on Middle Eastern American Affairs in the US.