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Portugal Right of Return Law Breathes New Life Into Tiny Community

(JTA) — 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.”

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.

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.”

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