Jewish Tourists From US Bring Life, Prayer Back to Unused Portuguese Synagogue
A small synagogue in Portugal, that has remained largely unused for prayer services since the 1960s, was once again filled with congregants last month, when 33 Jewish tourists visited the sanctuary, the Jewish Exponent reported on Thursday.
The tourists traveled to Sahar Hassamain Synagogue in Ponta Delgada, a town in the Azores islands, with the Pittsburgh-based company Amazing Journeys, which specializes in tours for Jewish singles. Amazing Journeys owner Malori Asman first heard about the temple from Cheryl Stern, a possible client from Boston who was inquiring about the whether the company’s June 5-17 tour of Portugal’s mainland, as well as Madeira and the Azores, included a visit to the synagogue.
Though the synagogue has received more than 6,000 visitors interested in touring its museum of Jewish artifacts, its sanctuary — which has four Torahs in its ark — is not in use because there are no practicing Jews left on the island, according to Jewish Exponent.
After talking with Stern, Asman put the synagogue on her group’s itinerary and also booked a tour of the museum, but when the tourists visited the building, they asked if they could also celebrate Shabbat. The administrator at Ponta Delgada’s city hall at first refused their request, but after the state senator from Massachusetts and the town’s mayor’s office intervened, the group got permission to hold a service at Sahar Hassamain.
Asman set up the Friday night Shabbat service by buying food and wine from a local market, and putting out candles for the tourists to light.
“It was so touching,” Asman said. “This is a building that was built for prayer, and it had been so long since Jews occupied the area. It was so meaningful to fill the room with prayer, as it was intended.”
Heidie Rothschild, of Alex-andria, Va., said about her experience, “For me, I’m not very much a practicing Jew, but … it felt like a very nice way to return to Judaism.”
Built in 1836, the synagogue was hidden from the public and housed in what was the home of a rabbi, according to Jewish Exponent. It can seat 67 people and also contains a mikvah (ritual bath). Stern said she has a “special connection” to the Azores because her late father, Aaron Mittleman, had been involved in raising funds for the restoration and preservation of the shul. It was a project he worked on for almost 30 years, according to Stern.
Mittleman, who lived in Fall River, Mass., traveled with colleagues to Ponta Delgada in 1987 for business, and during a stop at a local cafe, they were told about the hidden synagogue. Paula Raposa, one of Mittleman’s coworkers who grew up Catholic in that town before immigrating to Massachusetts in the 1960s, realized that the shul was next door to where she lived, though she never knew it existed. The group was able to get a key to the building and take a look inside.
“I was born there, and my parents were born there,” Raposa explained. “No one knew about that synagogue. It was a secret.”
The group found the synagogue in total disrepair and after returning home, Raposa and Mittleman created a nonprofit organization to raise funds for its renovation and to turn it into a museum, as a way to honor the island’s Jewish history. Years later, Raposa and Mittleman secured a grant in the amount of 300,000 euros ($333,435) from European Union groups that focus on the preservation of historical monuments, the Jewish Exponent reported.
“The Jewish people who built that synagogue had a huge impact on business there,” Raposa said. “We felt it was important to preserve an important piece of history.”
The refurbished sanctuary was rededicated on April 24, 2015 with a Shabbat service for 40 people. Close to half of the attendees were Jews, and it was the first known Jewish service in the Azores in nearly 50 years, The Herald News reported.