Portuguese town gets first Torah in 500 years

Portuguese town gets first Torah in 500 years

Shavei Israel Chairman Michael Freund carrying the Torah in Trancoso

Shavei Israel Chairman Michael Freund carrying the Torah in Trancoso

The Isaac Cardoso Center for Jewish Interpretation in Trancoso, Portugal, was formally dedicated this weekend in the presence of Shavei Israel Chairman Michael Freund, Rabbi Eliyahu Birnbaum, Shavei Israel’s Educational Director, and some 50 Portuguese Bnei Anousim who came to Trancoso for a weekend Shabbaton sponsored by Shavei Israel.

There was one additional “guest” at the dedication: a new Torah scroll, the first to make its home in Trancoso in nearly 500 years. The Sefer Torah, which was purchased with funds from the city, will take center stage in the newly built Beit Mayim Hayim synagogue – literally “the House of Living Waters” – part of the $1.5 million Cardoso Center. Rabbi Birnbaum brought the Sefer Torah from Israel.

“Five centuries after the expulsion of Portuguese Jewry, the streets of Trancoso have once again been filled with Jewish singing and dancing as we bring a Sefer Torah to its new home,” Michael Freund said at the dedication.

More than 60 people, including the mayor of Trancoso, Julio Sarmento; local resident and municipal worker Jose Domingos, a Bnei Anousim who serves as an advisor to the mayor; as well as a number of residents of Trancoso, attended the installation on Sunday. We have pictures of the Torah being carried through the streets of Trancoso here.

The procession’s starting point faced a large and imposing cathedral in the very same public square where the Inquisition had once tormented Trancoso’s hidden Jews. Speaking to the assembled crowd, Freund told the participants, “We are here today because your forefathers did not surrender to those who sought to force them to abandon their faith. They bravely and stubbornly clung to their Jewishness in secret, risking everything. Let us all take inspiration from their example.”

Shavei Israel’s programming in Trancoso for Bnei Anousim (people whose Iberian Jewish ancestors were compelled to convert to Catholicism more than five centuries ago and whom historians refer to by the derogatory term Marranos) is being overseen by the organization’s emissary to the region, Rabbi Elisha Salas. The weekend seminar, which began on Friday, included prayers, communal meals and classes taught by Freund and Rabbis Birnbaum and Salas.

The Cardoso Center is both intended to attract increased tourism to the area and to commemorate the countless Portuguese Jews who were persecuted, displaced or forcibly converted. The Center includes public assembly rooms, a small garden, video projection systems and two exhibition halls, one dedicated to the history of the Jews in Portugal and the other on the renewal of Jewish life in the region in recent years.

Near the entrance to the synagogue is a memorial wall filled with the names of Bnei Anousim who were tried and punished by the Inquisition for secretly practicing Judaism, including some who were publicly burned at the stake in the 18th century.

The facility itself is named after Isaac Cordoso, a 17th century Trancoso-born physician and philosopher who came from a family of Bnei Anousim. Cardoso later moved to Spain with his family and then fled to Venice to escape the Inquisition, where he and his brother Miguel publicly embraced Judaism.

The Center’s dedication and the installation of its Torah Scroll comes on the heels of a bill passed earlier this month by the Portuguese government to naturalize the Jewish descendants of expelled Jews.

According to the new legislation, “the government will give nationality…to Sephardic Jews of Portuguese ancestry who belong to a tradition of a Portuguese-descended Sephardic community, based on objective prerequisites proving a connection to Portugal through names, language and ancestry.”

That makes Portugal essentially the only country outside of Israel to have a Jewish “Law of Return” – an ironic twist of fate but one which is, nevertheless, welcome after so many years. ”For centuries, Trancoso was home to a large number of Bnei Anousim and it has a riveting history,” Freund said earlier this year at the announcement of an agreement between Shavei Israel and the city of Trancoso which grants Shavei the right to administer the Center and organize Jewish cultural, educational and religious activities on its premises. “We are now making great strides in providing the opportunity for a renewal of Jewish life in the region for those who seek it.”


Shavei Israel Chairman Michael Freund has written an emotional, first hand report about the Hachnasat Sefer Torah (Torah dedication ceremony). It includes some fascinating details uncovered by Jose Domingos describing how the Bnei Anousim “hid” Jewish symbols in the architecture of their homes – for example, an etching that appears at first to be three prongs but is actually an inverted shin, the Hebrew letter often used to denote one of the Divine names. The article appeared today in The Jerusalem Post.