American travelers return Jewish life to secret Portuguese shul
A small synagogue, unused since the 1960s and hidden in a house on an unassuming street in Ponta Delgada — an island town in Portugal’s Azores islands — once again was filled with the sound of Shabbat prayers last month, thanks to 33 Jewish tourists led by a Pittsburgh-based travel company.
Malori Asman, owner of Amazing Journeys, which specializes in leading tours for Jewish singles, first heard about the Sahar Hassamain Synagogue from Cheryl Stern, a prospective client from the Boston area, inquiring about the company’s June 5-17 tour of mainland Portugal and the Madeira and Azores islands. Stern asked Asman if she planned to take her group to visit the recently refurbished synagogue on the island of São Miguel while there.
Stern told Asman that she had a “special connection to the Azores” because her father, Aaron Mittleman, who died last February, had been instrumental in securing the funds for the renovation and preservation of the shul, a project he had worked on for almost 30 years.
Mittleman, a resident of Fall River, Mass., had been in Ponta Delgada on a business trip in 1987 along with several colleagues, including Paula Raposa, who had grown up in that town before immigrating to Massachusetts in the 1960s. While having coffee in a café, the group was told of the hidden synagogue, which happened to be right next-door.
Raposa, who is Catholic, recalled that the group was able to obtain the key to the building that housed the 19th-century synagogue and take a look.
She was stunned, she said.
“I was born there, and my parents were born there,” Raposa explained. “No one knew about that synagogue. It was a secret.”
The Sahar Hassamain (Gates of Heaven) Synagogue, once home to a small but thriving Jewish community on the island, was in total disrepair, Raposa said, but she was touched by the beauty of the sanctuary, as well as its historical significance.
When she returned home to Massachusetts, she and Mittleman established a nonprofit to raise funds to refurbish the synagogue and turn it into a museum to honor the Jewish presence that was once so important to the island. After years of work and navigating administrative red tape, Raposa and Mittleman were able to secure a grant from European Union groups devoted to the preservation of historical monuments in the amount of 300,000 euros.
“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 67-seat sanctuary was rededicated on April 24, 2015 with a Shabbat service of 40 people, about half of them Jews. It was the first known Jewish service in the Azores in nearly 50 years, The Herald News reported at the time.
While the building has received more than 6,000 visitors to tour its museum of Jewish artifacts since the rededication, and the sanctuary has four Torahs in its ark, it is not used for services because there are no practicing Jews left on the island, according to Raposa. There are, however, many Crypto-Jews — those whose ancestors were forced to convert to Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition — who maintain Jewish customs such as lighting candles on Friday nights, but often don’t know why.
When Asman heard about the synagogue from Stern, she put it on her group’s itinerary, and booked a tour of the museum. But after exploring the building, members of the group wanted to know if they could celebrate Shabbat there the next day.
At first, the administrator at Ponta Delgada’s city hall refused. But after much persistence, and the involvement of a state senator in Massachusetts and the town’s mayor’s office, the group got the green light to hold a service at Sahar Hassamain.
Asman picked up Portuguese sweet bread at a local market, bought some wine and, along with the Shabbat candlesticks with which she typically travels, set up a Kabbalat Shabbat service for her group.
“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.”
For traveler Yvette Diamond of Owings Mills, Md., the service at Sahar Hassamain took on special significance because it came on the heels of a stop in Lisbon when the group heard of the tragic history of the Jews in Portugal who had fled Spain
seeking refuge during the Inquisition. They were eventually forced to convert or had their children taken and sold to become slaves to the Portuguese.
“They hanged the men and raped the women,” Diamond said she learned. “And a lot of [the Jewish buildings] that used to be there were built on top of by the Catholic Church.
“We had just learned about all this, and then we went to the Azores, which are spectacularly beautiful,” Diamond continued. “We went to Ponta Delgada, and we went to this shul. It was so nondescript with no signage outside.”
The shul is housed in what was the home of a rabbi, built in 1836 and was concealed from the public. The building contains a mikvah, and the bimah is in the center of the sanctuary in typical Sephardic fashion, Diamond said.
“Being there was an amazing feeling for all of us,” she said. “One day we were bearing witness to the atrocities of Lisbon, and two days later we were in Azores and looking at this beautiful place.”
Heidie Rothschild of Alexandria, Va., agreed.
“For me, I’m not very much a practicing Jew, but to be there with the group and actually having the service in a shul that hadn’t been used in so long, it was just so beautiful,” Rothschild said. “It felt like a very nice way to return to Judaism. I thought it may be a call back; maybe I was there for a reason.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.