Jeremy Golan
Registered wedding officiant, chaplain, and educator.

A Journey Through Portugal’s Synagogues

A Journey Through Portugal’s Synagogues: The Rich History and Modern Revival of Iberian Jewry

When my wife and I decided to go on vacation, we wanted something unique and interesting that wouldn’t break the bank. A friend of hers had recently visited Porto, Portugal’s second-largest city, and raved about her experience. After some cursory research, I discovered the rich history of the area, from the Roman dominion to the Islamic administration right through to the Christian reconquest. The echoes of the Spanish Inquisition and the spiritual pursuits of Isabella and Ferdinand intrigued me, as well as the modern Portuguese community’s mix of Sephardic and Ashkenazi brothers and sisters. 

During the period of Al-Andalus, a time when Muslims ruled the Iberian Peninsula, the Jewish population thrived in the region. It is estimated that around 100,000 Jews lived in Portugal during this era, contributing significantly to the intellectual, cultural, and economic life of the region. This is a sharp difference from our current reality, where fighting is more common during Ramadan than during Holy Week in Jerusalem. While Jews were still subjugated to Dhimmi status-and forced to pay the jizya-this was a blessing compared to what the Church had in store for us. 

The Jews of Portugal, however, faced challenges in practising their faith openly, especially after the forced conversions of Jews during the Inquisition. Many Jews kept their holidays and traditions in private, out of fear of persecution. The Catholic Church’s twisting of the Bible (and the propagation of anti-Semitic ideas) further fueled Sinat Chinam. Despite all of its gory and immoral details, this period is still taught in Portuguese schools today. Like the relationship between Canada and the First Nations People, reconciliation forces us to face our darkest secrets. 

The modern revival of the Portuguese Jewish community owes much to a Portuguese convert to Judaism, who was a captain in his national service.  As such, he used his connections to secure the funds needed to rebuild the community. The main benefactor of the community was the Kadoorie family from Hong Kong, a unique blend of Portuguese and Iraqi Hebrews who made their fortune in hospitality, commerce and other ventures.

Our journey led us to the Mekom Hayim Synagogue, established during the Second World War when synagogues were being destroyed in Germany and elsewhere. Located atop a mountain, it shares its neighbourhood with two Jewish museums and a kosher restaurant. A short walk away, a kosher café serves French food, and impressive amenities such as a kosher store and hotel are within walking distance.

Before visiting the synagogue, make sure to contact them and provide your passport, as there is an increased risk of antisemitism. The synagogue itself is beautifully ornate, and my family and I arrived early, finding commonality in speaking Hebrew. This experience served as a gateway to the country and the rich tapestry of Iberian Jewry. The synagogue is the largest in “the Spains” and symbolises a revival in every sense of the word.

Young people, digital nomads, and young families looking for a lower cost of living are moving to the area, contributing to the growth of the community. Throughout our visit, we did not experience any antisemitism and were greeted kindly by people of all backgrounds. DNA evidence shows that many Portuguese people have Jewish ancestry, which connects them to their Catholic faith in a unique way. You will often hear people discuss their grandparents lighting candles or preferring non-pork alternatives at home. This may not be Halachic proof of status but it certainly makes for interesting conversations and the possibility of friendship. 

While Portugal is a deeply Catholic country, especially in the north, I noticed some Jewish imagery in much of the local artwork. This may not constitute philo-semitism but it does bring up a comment that I read earlier this week. Without remembering the writer by name, he commented that “we must protect the Jews because we need to protect our access to the texts”. This came at a time where most people were not literate and had to rely on their clergy and religious imagery for religious instruction. 

Not everyone is super religious, of course, probably better classified under the term “Cultural Catholic”. This phenomenon exists in all religious traditions, comprising people who attend service a couple times a year and insist on going through the milestones. With Portugal being among the first countries to accept Christianity, it is impossible to separate the culture from the belief system. While this can be dangerous in some situations–like during Czar’s rule over the Pale–Judaism is safe under the “quasi-Catholic” worldview that reigns supreme. 

Practical Details

  1. If you have Sephardic ancestry, from either Portugal or Spain, you may be eligible for a passport. Your first point of contact would be your rabbi, assuming that you are part of a sephardic congregation. 
  2. You can make contact with the Lisbon Jewish Community. They can help you with all of the steps needed. 
  3. It is easier to get a Portuguese passport compared to the Spanish alternative. Both give you full access to the European Union. 
  4. You may need to do a language test. The Portuguese only requires an A2 level while other countries want B2+. 
  5. If you are not Sephardic then you can easily move here, especially if you have passive income. While they have cancelled their Golden Visa scheme, there are many other options for you.
About the Author
Jeremy Golan is a registered officiant, school chaplain, and teacher living in Toronto Canada. A staunch supporter of the Jewish State, he is interested in creating peace through dialogue.
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