Hand-in-hand with rediscovered family in Portugal

Like explorers embarking on a journey to discover a new world, Jews living in different parts of the world are returning to Portugal. And B’nai B’rith International has been proud to serve as a navigator of sorts.

As president of B'nai B'rith's international, the world's oldest and largest Jewish membership organization, a keen interest in our Diaspora inspired me to take an international board meeting to a place where inhabitants once believed the earth was flat.

I was fully aware of the cruel and evil history of the Inquisition, having visited Spain as a college student, but never Portugal. It was time for B’nai B’rith, founded in America in 1843 and exported to Europe in 1888, to bring its world to Lisbon and Porto. In 2019, our International Council of B'nai B'rith met in Lisbon for an extraordinary conference, where we revisited the saving of Jews by Ambassador Aristides de Sousa Mendes; and learned about the history and rebirth of Judaism in Oporto.

We learned from Catarina Vaz Pinto, councillor of culture in Lisbon and wife to United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who previously was the country’s prime minister, about future plans for the Tikva Jewish Museum of Lisbon. The museum is planned for Belem in front of the Belem Tower and the Tejo/Tagus River. It will be the second Jewish museum in the country. Oporto was first to open its museum doors across the street from the historic Kadoorie Mekor Haim Synagogue.

B’nai B’rith members from 17 countries walked in the footsteps of Jews from 500 years ago and in the shadows of the Jewish Ghetto. We became explorers returning to an Old World.

In a matter of days we consumed much in this country, even taking home bottles of its award-winning kosher Ruby red Port wine made in — where else? — Porto. We also commemorated this important, high-profile event with a postal indicia from the postal service, the Correios de Portugal, (CTT).

Portugal is a modern community that is awakened to its glorious Jewish past. This leap from the late 15th Century to the 21st Century is unearthing more than time. Following the 2013 passage and 2015 implementation of a new law, which welcomed Jews who could prove their Sephardic roots, the bowels of the exquisite Jewish in Oporto became lined with room after room of boxed files protecting applications and an assortment of legal documentation.

Piles of additional applications await processing. They are the fingerprints, voices, even whispers of generations past. Where few, if any, records existed and people were burned at the stake, suddenly, there are thousands of virtual heartbeats in the bottom of the Oporto Jewish Museum.

Inspired by B'nai B'rith’s mission and global reputation, Gabriela Cantergi and the Portuguese Jewish leaders are inspiring a nation, much the way Joshua led the Hebrew nation from Egypt and into the Promised Land. Yiddishkeit is flowering in Oporto with kosher hotels and restaurants that complement a magnificently restored synagogue and an extraordinary Holocaust Museum. The Holocaust museum tells the epic history of the modern world, from the evil of the Nazis and the synagogue's unique role in housing Holocaust survivors to the heroic 1976 rescue of the hijacked Air France jetliner in Entebbe.

The work that has transpired here in a few short years is nothing short of a miracle. When I and others put on tefillin there, daven there, receive an aliyah there, bench there, sing z’mirot there, the experience there is certainly special. It is a palpable experience that you must see, describe and feel for yourself. This is hallowed ground.

Maybe the resilience of Portugal is the sequel to what took Jews 40 years in the desert to define itself or a dozen years to extract itself from the horrors of 1,000 work and death camps in Europe.

The rebirth of the Jewish people in Portugal and religious practice and faith have ignited services with kiddush meals and full-throated prayer. Portugal is a place where Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews stand together, pray together.

Near Lisbon, in Cascais, the largest Chabad Center in Europe is housed in an extraordinary contemporary edifice with a flock of new residents and visitors led by a brilliant, engaging young man, Rabbi Eli Rosenfeld, who came to Portugal in 2010 with his bride Raizel and growing family.

And while the resurgence of Judaism exposes our people to anti-Semitism, relations with the Catholic Church in modern times and Portuguese diplomats is most positive. Israel ambassador Raphael Gamzou accepted a diplomatic assignment with a difficult history and paved a strong trail as Israel’s ambassador for his successor, Dor Shapira.

Through it all B'nai B'rith proudly stands shoulder to shoulder and hand-in-hand with rediscovered family. And the exploration continues.