Larry Luxner

Maryland synagogue to celebrate Cape Verde’s Jewish heritage, March 10

WASHINGTON — At least half a dozen foreign ambassadors will descend on Magen David Sephardic Congregation in Rockville, Md., this weekend to celebrate the Jewish heritage of Cape Verde — despite the fact that not a single Jew today lives in this African island nation of about 540,000 people.

The March 10 event, “Moroccan Jews of Cape Verde,” features a musical performance by Gardenia Benros — known as “a voz da alma caboverdiana” [the soulful voice of Cape Verde].

Like many of her fellow citizens, the award-winning singer is a descendant of Sephardic Jews who emigrated to the tropical island chain in the mid-1800s, when it was still a Portuguese colony.

Concrete road sign announces the entrance to Sinagoga, a town on Santo Antão island so named because of the presence of a long-gone synagogue that once served the area’s flourishing Jewish community. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

“It’s an important event because Cape Verde officially recognizes that Jewish heritage is part of our identity,” Carlos Veiga, the country’s ambassador to the United States, said on Wednesday. “We are very proud of our ancestors, even though we don’t have any practicing Jew today living in Cape Verde.”

Also attending will be Portuguese Ambassador Festas Vital as well as the Washington-based ambassadors of Angola, Mozambique, Timor-Leste and Togo. Brazilian diplomat Rubens Campana as well as Reuven Azar, deputy chief of mission at the Israeli Embassy, will also attend, as will officials from the Moroccan Embassy and possibly Spain and Great Britain.

Veiga, whose maternal grandfather — James Wahnon — was a Jew from Gibraltar, will make a short presentation. So will Carol Castiel, president of the Cape Verde Jewish Heritage Project (CVJHP), which recently succeeded in getting several Jewish cemeteries and other sites declared as “national historical and cultural patrimony.”

Hebrew gravestones are protected by a wall surrounding the tiny Jewish cemetery in Boa Vista. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

The Washington-based nonprofit group is currently working on signage for two Jewish cemeteries—Ponta da Sol and Penha de França—located on the island of Santo Antão, one of 10 islands located in the Atlantic Ocean, roughly 300 miles west of Senegal.

The mixed-race, predominantly Catholic nation also has two other Jewish cemeteries: one on the desert island of Boa Vista, which is being developed for tourism; and the fourth within the vast Várzea municipal cemetery in Praia, on the southern coast of the island of Santiago.

“The CVJHP has painstakingly verified the Portuguese and Hebrew inscriptions and translated them into English, so we will have a map of the tombstones in bronze with corresponding English and Portuguese translations to help visitors know what they’re viewing,” Castiel said.

Manuel Leite opens the gates to the Penha da França cemetery in Ribeira Grande, which contains six Jewish tombstones, most with Hebrew as well as Portuguese inscriptions. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

“All of this represents our yeoman effort to not only preserve and maintain the cemeteries but also to provide proper, dignified and lasting signage to facilitate cultural tourism and serve as a permanent tribute to the memory of the Sephardim buried there,” she added.

The Magen David event is co-sponsored by the embassies of Cape Verde and Morocco, as well as by the Sally and Irving Korobkin Education Fund. Moroccan desserts will be served; ticket prices range from $10 to $20. For more information, please contact or call the synagogue at (301) 770-6818.

About the Author
Miami native Larry Luxner, a veteran journalist and photographer, has reported from more than 100 countries in Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia for a variety of news outlets. He lived for many years in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the Washington, D.C., area before relocating to Israel in January 2017.