Portugal witnessing Jewish renaissance
Every Friday at the start of the Jewish Sabbath Porto’s imposing synagogue positively buzzes with the sound of chatter — not just in Portuguese but also in English, French and Spanish.
It’s in this unexpectedly animated atmosphere that the Jewish community in northern Portugal, wiped out in the 15th century, is currently undergoing a rebirth, welcoming Jews who feel threatened in Europe and elsewhere — some coming from as far as India.
“Anti-Semitism is growing in Europe but Porto seems to be a safe haven. It’s good to be a Jew here,” said Sam Elijah, who heads a community that numbered only 20 four years ago.
It has since increased to 200 made up of no less than 21 different nationalities.
Now, the community — which is Orthodox but is open to all Jews — does not hesitate to advertise the attractions of the city abroad and anticipates a big boost in numbers in coming years, in particular from France and Turkey.
The Zekris, a family of four, who did not want to give their full names, took the plunge in August 2015. They are among 50 French Jews already settled in Porto, Portugal’s second city and the largest in the country’s north.
After living in Israel, the family moved to Toulouse in France to “support the community after the terrorist attacks of March 2012.”
The jihadist Mohamed Merah had just murdered three children and a teacher at a Jewish school in the southwestern city.
“We experienced anti-Semitism,” said Mr Zekri, adding that it was also the reason for the family’s move to Portugal.
On this Friday in September, the family is working hard to prepare the Sabbath, during which Jewish tradition forbids work, driving or the use of electricity.
The cooking is done in advance, the timers set to turn off the lights at the exact hour…. “It’s always a bit of a rush, but afterwards it’s total rest,” adds Mr Zekri.
“Here I stroll carefree in a kippah (a small Jewish skullcap) and quite often people stop me and tell me ‘We love Jews’,” he said.
“I have never heard this kind of talk elsewhere, in France or in Europe,” added the father-of-two, who is studying dental medicine.
At the end of September, the first family from Turkey is due to arrive thanks to a new law, which came into force in 2015 offering Sephardi Jews Portuguese nationality by way of reparation for the expulsions and persecution suffered by their ancestors at the end of the 15th century.
Others are preparing to follow suit. Around 500 descendants of expelled Jews have already been granted Portuguese citizenship with the help of an intermediary in Porto, of which 70 percent are Turkish.
Eliran Graedge, who arrived from Israel in 2007 with his wife and daughter, was one of the first to arrive.
Today he says he feels completely at home in Portugal.
“This is a wonderful country to live in,” he said.
And it is not just Jews from Europe and the Middle East who have joined the community in Porto. Others have also come from Asia or the Americas.
Dan Capriles, 39, has no regrets about leaving Colombia. He appreciates the people of Porto who he says “know that the Jews have always been part of the city’s history.”
At the start of the Sabbath, Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews, from the two main branches of Judaism, meet at the synagogue — the Kadoorie Mekor Haim synagogue built between 1929 and the late 1930s — to pray in Hebrew.
“The language difficulty arises with the drashot (sermon),” said Rabbi Daniel Litvak who preaches in Hebrew, Spanish or English depending on the language of the majority of those present.
Many Jews do not attend the synagogue for religious ceremonies, but the building located not far from the center of Porto remains a focal point for services to develop the community, including a mini-supermarket selling kosher products and a day nursery for very young children.
A school is due to open soon and on the first floor there is a museum tracing the history of Jews in the city.
Built in an impressive mix of Art Deco and Moroccan styles and with an interior lined with painted ceramic tiles, the synagogue is the largest on the Iberian peninsula and has been completely renovated since 2012 thanks to donations from across the world.
According to the community, Porto also welcomed around 10,000 Jewish tourists in 2015, with a hotel just a few steps from the synagogue set up to meet their needs.
“We have a second kitchen which prepares kosher meals,” said Liliana Castanheira, manager for the Musica Hotel.
“And during the Sabbath, the automatic hotel doors remain permanently open so customers do not have to use the electricity,” she added.