The oldest existing synagogue in Portugal is reborn

Have you ever visited an ancient synagogue and cried with joy at its beauty?

The oldest existing synagogue in Portugal is reborn

Have you ever visited an ancient synagogue and cried with joy at its beauty?

We had the opposite experience in the Azores in the fall of 2006. What we saw brought tears and anger. The place was on the verge of collapse. Termites had been feasting, water had been pouring through holes in the walls and ceilings, and stairways, floors and window casings were rotting.

The sanctuary with its beautiful Ark, bimah and dark, wooden benches is located behind what was the rabbi’s family’s living quarters. Light from the windows of the balcony and the high ceiling should have offered the feeling of tranquillity one expects at a house of worship. But in this case, the light revealed the utter neglect and total disregard for the ceremonial and religious objects. We lifted the seats of the benches where we found tallitot, tfillin and prayer books covered with rodent droppings, mould and dirt. We found untold documents in similar condition in cabinets and drawers. It was a disgrace, literally a crying shame.

This was the Sahar Hassamain (Gates of Heaven) Synagogue in Ponta Delgada, Sao Miguel, Azores, Portugal.

We were shown around by José De Almeida Mello, historian and champion of preserving Azorean culture and heritage. He had recently been assigned the monumental task and responsibility of co-ordinating the effort to restore the synagogue and preserve the heritage and culture of the early Azorean Jewish presence and its impact on the history of the islands.

It is believed, though undocumented, that the Jewish people came to the Azores, a cluster of nine volcanic islands in the North Atlantic Ocean, during the 15th and l6th centuries. The first documented settlement of Jews began in 1818 with the largest community in Ponta Delgada, Sao Miguel. There were 150 Jewish people residing in Sao Miguel, Terceira and Faial in the 19th century.

Today there is one Jew, Jorge Delmar Soares, who resides in Ponta Delgada. When we arrive each winter, the Jewish population increases to three.

The synagogues of Terciera and Faial are long gone. Ponta Delgada had five synagogues and nearby Vila Franca do Campo had one. The Sahar Hassamain Synagogue, built in 1836, is the only one remaining and has the distinction of being the oldest existing synagogue in Portugal.

Mello worked tirelessly with diligence and devotion to bring all public and private stakeholders together. In November 2009 he wrote and published his book, Sahar Hassamain Synagogue in Ponta Delgada, which became the catalyst for progress.

In March, we met Mello at Rua Do Brum 14-16, this time with tears of joy. The façade of the synagogue maintains its anonymity. Painted white, as is customary, with a gold accent at street level, the interior beautifully preserves the past with an eye towards the future. The new museum and archive spaces are bright and airy. The restoration of all elements of the sanctuary are exquisite. Thanks to donations, the new museum and archives have a representative collection of documents, letters, books and religious artifacts and the sanctuary now has five Torahs and new prayer books and Bibles. The inauguration and grand opening of the newly refurbished synagogue took place on April 23.

Mello’s office is now fittingly located in the synagogue overlooking the sanctuary as he now administers the activities of the shul. The opening hours are 1 to 4:15 p.m. Monday to Friday.

We also visited the Jewish cemetery in 2006, which was in terrible condition with crumbling monuments, overgrown cactus, litter and weeds. Fortunately it was repaired and cleaned some years ago. It’s located on Rua Santa Clara surrounded by a concrete wall and an outer wall of an abandoned fish factory. Approximately 160 people are buried there.

We suggest you make your visit part of a larger Jewish heritage tour of Portugal: in Porto, the Kadoorie Synagogue; in Lisbon, the Kehilat Beit Israel and Shaare Tikvah Synagogues; in Belmonte, the Bet Eliahu Synagogue and the Synagogue of Tomar. If our experience is any indication, you will be warmly welcomed by all.

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