New citizenship law has Jews worldwide flocking to tiny Portugal city


Five years ago, this city’s tiny Jewish community was so strapped for cash it couldn’t afford to fix the deep cracks in its synagogue’s moldy ceiling.

The Jewish Community of Porto was also too poor to hire a full-time rabbi because of its small size (50 members) and the paucity of donors in a country gripped by a financial crisis.

But last month the community, situation 200 miles north of Lisbon, showcased its stunning turnaround. Hosting the biggest event in its history, it drew hundreds of guests from all over the world to the city’s newly opened kosher hotel and newly renovated synagogue. The community also has a new Jewish museum and mikvah ritual bath, and there are plans to build a kosher shop, Jewish kindergarten and school.

The money, community members say, came from a massive influx of Jewish tourists that coincided with the implementation of Portugal’s 2013 law of return for Sephardic Jews and their descendants.

The law named the Porto community, founded by a handful of converts to Judaism, one of two institutions responsible for vetting citizenship applications, providing the Jews in this little-known city of 230,000 with tens of thousands of dollars in income and turning Porto into a destination for Jews from around the world.

“This law not only gave us new funds but put us on the world map,” said Emmanuel Fonseca, a 53-year-old Orthodox convert to Judaism. “In no time, we went from a tiny group struggling to exist to a well-to-do congregation with local and international standing. I never thought I would live to see this.”

Applying for membership in Lisbon and Porto’s official Jewish community costs $300-$560 and is a required step for a Jew to become a Portuguese citizen under the 2013 law. (Spain recently passed a similar law aimed at descendants of Sephardic Jews.) Each application must be checked by one of the two Jewish communities against their records and lists of lineages. Some of the hundreds of applicants to Porto have added handsome donations on top of the required fee.

So far, only three of the hundreds of citizenship applications have been approved, a wrinkle that Leon Amiras, an Israeli attorney handling citizenship requests and chairman of the Association of Olim from Latin America, Spain and Portugal, attributed to bureaucratic complications connected to last November’s elections in Portugal. Amiras said he expects hundreds of applications to be approved this year.

Meanwhile, Porto is becoming a more attractive prospective home for Jews with European Union passports, who can move here without obtaining citizenship. Yoel Zekri, a French Jewish student in his 20s who temporarily moved here last year from Marseille, where five Jews have been assaulted in three stabbing attacks since October, said he’s considering staying on after his studies “to help build the community.”

“I no longer feel comfortable in France,” Zekri said. “I would never wear a kippah on the street. Here people sometimes tell me they are happy to see the Jews return.”

Congregants praying at the Kadoorie - Mekor Haim synagogue in Porto, Portugal, May 2014. (Courtesy of the Jewish Community of Porto)Congregants praying at the Kadoorie – Mekor Haim synagogue in Porto, Portugal, May 2014. Photo courtesy of the Jewish Community of Porto

Porto hasn’t seen a single anti-Semitic incident over the last decade, according to the mayor, Rui Moreira, who spoke last month at an event at the synagogue and obliquely referenced the rising anti-Semitic violence elsewhere in Europe.

“This synagogue was built when others across Europe were being burned,” he said. “Today it again offers shelter from the bad winds blowing around us.”

Alexandre Sznajder, a Jewish businessman from Rio de Janeiro with a Polish passport who was in town for the kosher hotel and synagogue celebration, is thinking about moving to Porto with his wife and son.

“The economic situation in Brazil is deteriorating and personal security is terrible,” said Sznajder, an importer who said he was kidnapped for ransom two years ago. “If I can keep doing business from here, where it’s safe, Porto could be the place for us.”

Some applicants for Portuguese citizenship from non-EU countries want a Portuguese passport as an insurance policy, in the event things in their home countries go south. Hila Loya, a visitor from Cape Town, applied last year for that reason.

In South Africa, she said, “the anti-Israel, anti-Jewish atmosphere is worsening, and there’s a feeling things may turn for the worse in the near future.”

Last month, approximately 250 Jews from 14 countries convened here for a weekend retreat designed to introduce them to Porto and its Jews. Among those present were the president of Lisbon’s Jewish community, Turkish Chief Rabbi Ishak Haleva and 80 other Turkish Jews. Most of the applicants to Porto’s community so far have been Turkish Jews, including many of those who came for the weekend retreat.

Haleva, one of Sephardic Jewry’s most respected religious figures, said he came not to apply for citizenship – “I’m a Turkish Jew, period” – but to visit “this place where our roots are.” Many of Turkey’s Jews are descended from Sephardic Jews who fled northern Portugal after 1536, when Portugal joined Spain in applying the Inquisition’s expulsion orders against Jews, according to Haleva. And many of those who fled from Portugal to Turkey originally came from Spain, where the Inquisition began in 1492.

Turkish Chief Rabbi Ishak Haleva, right, talking to congregants outside Kadoorie - Mekor Haim synagogue in Porto, Portugal, Jan. 29, 2016 (Cnaan Liphshiz) Congregants carrying a Torah scroll into the Kadoorie – Mekor Haim synagogue in Porto, Portugal, Jan. 29, 2016. Photo by Cnaan Liphshiz/JTA

Tens of thousands of Jews stayed in Portugal and converted to Christianity. While many continued to practice Judaism in secret as anusim – Hebrew for “forced ones” — the Jewish presence ultimately vanished from this once heavily Jewish area. The Jewish revival was sparked in 1923, when a Portuguese army captain, Arthur Carlos Barros Basto, reached out to the descendants of the anusim, leading to the construction of Porto’s synagogue.

Built in 1939, the community’s Kadoorie – Mekor Haim synagogue is among the largest and most beautiful in the Iberian Peninsula, but it saw long periods of neglect until last year’s extensive renovations were completed. That helped put a new shine on the synagogue’s best features: Moroccan-style interior arches; heavy redwood interior and dazzling collection of more than 20,000 hand-painted azulejos, Portugal’s iconic ceramic tiles.

When Porto’s mayor dropped in at last month’s retreat, it was his second time at the city’s shul – a sign of the Jewish community’s increased significance in Porto, according to the local rabbi, Daniel Litvak.

Addressing 300 guests from the synagogue’s podium while wearing a kippah, Moreira, who himself is descended from an Ashkenazi Jew who settled in Porto in the 19th century, said Portugal’s new law of return was to “correct a historical wrong” — the 16th-century expulsion of Portugal’s Jews.

But, he added, “the law has future implications: We want you to come live here, with us, and share that future.”

Portugal open to citizenship applications by descendants of Sephardic Jews


The government of Portugal published its procedure for handling applications for citizenship based on the country’s law of return for descendants of Sephardic Jews.

The new procedure, effective as of Sunday, is based on legislation passed in 2013 entitling the descendants of Sephardic Jews to the Portuguese nationality deprived of them due to religious and racist persecution as of 1492, the year that is widely accepted as the beginning of the Inquisition.

It forced hundreds of thousands of Jews to emigrate under duress.

“The following document will allow the realization of the right of return to Jewish Sephardic descendants of Portuguese origin who desire, through acquiring Portuguese nationality by naturalization, to integrate into the national community with all the inherent rights and obligation this entails,” reads the new decree of law, which was published Monday.

Spain has initiated similar legislation for similar reasons but its Congress has yet to vote on any bill.

Titled “Concession on Portuguese Nationality by Naturalization to Descendants of Sephardic Jews,” the new regulation stipulates that applicants must present a document issued by a Portugal-based Portuguese community attesting to their Portuguese Sephardic ancestry. The country has two officially recognized Jewish communities, Lisbon and Porto.

In addition, applicants must prove other personal documents through a notary, including proof that they have no criminal record in their country of origin or residence.

The Jewish Community of Porto, which has published an English-language text for prospective applicants on its website, already has approved 21 applications, according to Michael Rothwell, who coordinates issues connected to citizenship for the community. Among the first applicants approved was Alfonso Paredes and his family from Panama, Rothwell said in a statement.

Other applicants include citizens of Turkey, Israel, the United States and some European countries.

“Israel is for Jews the land of return but in Europe, the best safe harbor for Jews is Portugal,” Rothwell said.

“Portugal is perhaps the only country in Europe where one can safely walk anywhere at any time while wearing a kippah,” a spokesman for the Porto Jewish community added in a statement.

EU boss: Jews exemplify cultural integration


During a visit to the Dutch capital’s Portuguese Synagogue, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said European Jews “exemplify cultural integration.”

Barroso, a former prime minister of his native Portugal who today holds the most powerful position in the European Union, visited the synagogue on Jan. 8.  He also said Jews were “at the front line of the fight against extremism.”

Referring to the completion of an ambitious renovation project which last year won the European Union’s Europa Nostra prize for conservation work, Barrosso said the synagogue was “impressive” and “great to see after the renovation.”

He added: “It is part of the work of keeping alive this great tradition, the Jewish tradition, which is a part of our European Union.”

The Portuguese Synagogue complex has been in use since its inauguration in 1675 by descendants of Jews who fled the Spanish and Portuguese inquisitions in the 15th and 16th century and settled in Amsterdam, known for its religious tolerance.

“For Jews, the Portuguese Synagogue of Amsterdam represents religious freedom, and I think that is part of the importance of President Barroso’s visit here,” Nuno Wahnon Martins, the Lisbon-born director of European Affairs at B'nai B'rith International, told JTA.

Today the red-brick synagogue — whose distinctive arched windows and magnificent interior has earned it the nickname the “pearl of Amsterdam” — is situated at the center of the city’s newly-inaugurated Jewish Quarter. The area, which has seven Jewish institutions including the Jewish Historical Museum, attracted 275,000 visitors in 2012, according to the museum’s director, Joel Cahen.

U.N. Security Council states condemn Israel over housing


Members of the U.N. Security Council criticized Israel’s decision to construct additional housing in the settlements and the United States for blocking a vote to condemn the action.

The four European Union nations on the council—Britain, France, Germany and Portugal—issued a joint statement slamming Israel for settlement building. They cited a briefing by the U.N. assistant secretary-general for political affairs, Oscar Fernandez-Taranco, who said such construction is preventing the restarting of peace talks with the Palestinians.

“One of the themes that emerged was the severely damaging effect that increased settlement construction and settler violence is having on the ground and on the prospects of a return to negotiations,” the EU council members said in their joint statement, Reuters reported.

The president of the Security Council, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, indirectly blamed the United States for its role in the stalled negotiations.

“There is one delegation which would not want to hear anything about it, any kind of a statement, which believes that somehow things will sort of settle themselves somehow miraculously out of their own,” Churkin said.

Statements from the Nonaligned Movement, the Arab group and the group of emerging powers that includes India, Brazil and South Africa also condemned Israel and the United States, according to reports.

Meanwhile, the EU’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, issued a statement expressing her “strong disapproval” of Israel’s announcement earlier this week issuing a tender to build more than 1,000 housing units in the West Bank, including in eastern Jerusalem.

“I urge them not to proceed with this publication,” Ashton said in the statement. “The EU’s position is clear: Settlement construction is illegal under international law and further complicates efforts to find a solution to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. By ensuring the suspension of the publication of these tenders, the Israeli government can contribute positively to these efforts.”

What’s Portuguese for Cohen?


A major new tool can help Brazilians learn about their possible Iberian Jewish origins: the "Dictionary of Sephardic Surnames," a 528-page tome featuring some 17,000 surnames of Sephardic Jewish families from Portugal, Spain and Italy and their descendants.

Written in Portuguese and English, the dictionary is the fruit of a research project started in 1995 by Brazilian historians Guilherme Faiguenboim and Paulo Valadares and Italian historian Anna Rosa Campagnano. Faiguenboim and Campagnano are Jewish. Valadares is of Portuguese "New Christian" — or Marrano — ancestry.

According to Faiguenboim, a founding member of the Brazilian Jewish Genealogical Society, the initial idea was to explore about 1,000 Sephardic surnames. After seven years of work, the team had more than 16,000 names.

The first part of the book features a historical introduction. The second tells about the Sephardic dispersion from the edicts of expulsion until the 20th century. The book ends with the dictionary itself, preceded by an explanation of the names’ origins.

For each entry, readers can find where the first references to the family name were found and the name’s subsequent path around the world. It also lists famous bearers of the family name through history.

According to Faiguenboim, historians say that 10 percent to 30 percent of the Portuguese population was Jewish before Jews were forced in 1496 to leave the country or be baptized. Many of them fled to Northern Africa and, beginning in the early 1500s, also to Brazil, Portugal’s major colony. According to historians, several Jews were among the sailors on the very first Portuguese caravel fleets to the New World.

Most non-Jewish Brazilians presume that they have Jewish ancestry because they have surnames that Jews were known to have used in the past to hide their Jewishness. However, such names — like Oliveira, Souza, Cardoso, and even Silva, the most typical Brazilian name of all — often are common among non-Jewish Brazilians.

Faiguenboim says that not everyone with a family name in the dictionary is of Jewish ancestry.

"But if a person is recognized as Jewish, his or her name will certainly be there," he said.

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