First Jewish Cultural Center in More Than 500 Years to Open in Portugal

The town of Transcoso, Portugal; photo by Rabbi Elisa Salas, courtesy Shavei Israel.

The Mayor of Transcoso, Portugal, Júlio José Saraiva Sarmento, and Shavei Israel Chairman Michael Freund signed a formal agreement Monday regarding the opening of a Jewish cultural and religious center in the city, the first of its kind in Portugal in more than 500 years.

The Center, named the Isaac Cardoso Center for Jewish Interpretation, will include an exhibition about the Jewish history of Portugal and the renewal of Jewish life in the region in recent years. It will also contain a new synagogue called Beit Mayim Hayim – “the House of Living Waters.”

The establishment of the Center marks the first time a Portuguese Municipality has taken full responsibility, at its own expense, to construct a Jewish Center. Under the terms of the agreement, Shavei Israel will administer the center and organize various Jewish cultural, educational and religious activities on its premises, all of which will be overseen by the group’s emissary to Portugal, Rabbi Elisa Salas. Jose Levy Domingos, who serves as an advisor to the Mayor, will be administering the Center for the municipality and will work in conjunction with Rabbi Salas. The Center is expected to begin operating shortly, and will focus on outreach work to the many Bnei Anousim (descendants of Iberian Jews who were compelled to convert to Catholicism in the 14th and 15th centuries and whom historians refer to by the derogatory term Marranos) who reside in the area.

Transcoso is a city in northeastern Portugal that was home to a flourishing Jewish community in the 14th and 15th centuries, prior to the expulsion and forced conversion of Portugal’s Jews. One of the most well-known Jewish historical buildings in Transcoso is the Casa do Gato Negro in Largo Luis de Albuquerque, which used to serve as a synagogue and rabbi’s residence. One of Transcoso’s most famous Jews was the mysterious Banbarra (1500-1545), a shoemaker and a poet, who prophesized the future of Portugal and was a source of inspiration for many writers.

Isaac Cardoso, after whom the center is named, was a Jewish physician and philosopher who was born in Trancoso in 1603 to a family of Bnei Anousim. He 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. He went on to publish a number of important works on philosophy, medicine and theology, including an important treatise defending Judaism and the Jewish people from various medieval stereotypes such as ritual murder accusations and the blood libel.