06 February 2019

Porto’s synagogue tells
the story of a community
that survived the Inquisition

The synagogue in Porto is one of the largest in western Europe (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

After a morning tour of Jewish Porto throughout Tuesday morning [5 February 2019], I spent part of Tuesday afternoon at the Kadoorie Mekor Haim Synagogue in the northern suburbs of Porto. This synagogue, built on the Rua Guerra Junqueiro from 1929, was inaugurated in 1938 and is the largest synagogue in the Iberian Peninsula and one of the largest synagogues in Europe.

The story of this synagogue dates back almost a century to 1923, and to the efforts taken to re-establish the Jewish community in Porto by Captain Artur Barros Basto, a Sephardic Ben Anusim or descendant of a family that had been forced by the Inquisition to convert to Christianity around the 15th century.

Captain Barros Basto returned to Judaism after he heard the family story from his father on his deathbed, and he would become, perhaps, the most important figures in the Portuguese Jewish community in the last century.

He found at least 20 Ashkenazim Jews Porto, but because there was no synagogue in the city they needed to travel to Lisbon for all their religious matters.

The synagogue in Porto is one of the largest in western Europe (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Artur Barros Basto began to plan a synagogue, and officially registered the local Jewish community with the local government in 1923 as the Comunidade Israelita do Porto or Israelite Community of Porto. At this stage, the nascent Jewish community used a house on the Rua Elias Garcia, and in 1927 he founded a Portuguese Jewish newspaper, Ha-Lapid.

Barro Bastos raises funds to buy a plot of land, and 90 years ago, on 13 November 1929, he applied for legal permission to begin building work.

The architects on the project were Artur de Almeida Júnior and Augusto dos Santos Malta, an architect trained in the Escola das Belas Artes de Porto. Rogério de Azevedo designed the interior, and may also have been involved in other work, including the woodwork in the library.

A Jewish theological institute began working in the building even before it was completed.

The synagogue in Porto is testimony to a community that retained its identity despite the Inquisition (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Support came from the Committee for Spanish-Portuguese Jews in London, but the work continued slowly until 1937, when the synagogue was completed, thanks to the contributions from the Jewish community in London and with funds donated by the Kadoorie family and Iraqi Jews from Portugal.

The Kadoorie family is originally a family of Mizrahi or ‘oriental’ Jews from Baghdad. From the mid-18th century, the family was based in Mumbai (then Bombay). Their family businesses were later based in Shanghai and then in Hong Kong.

Sir Eleazar (‘Elly’) Kadoorie (1867-1944) was a prominent Jewish philanthropist and banker who died in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp during World War II. His wife Laure Kadoorie (1866-1919) was descended from a family that had fled the Portuguese Inquisition. When she died, her children decided to honour her, and they donated generously towards completing the synagogue. It was later renamed Synagogue Kadoorie Mekor Haim.

Meanwhile, Captain Artur Barros Basto was expelled from the Portuguese army for taking part in Jewish rites, including circumcisions.

The synagogue was inaugurated in 1938. It was just a few meters from the German School, and the Portuguese authorities rapidly planted large trees the screen the School and the Synagogue from each other. During World War II, hundreds of refugees fleeing the Holocaust passed through the doors of this synagogue on their way to safety in the US and many other places.

Captain Barros Bastos died in 1961. Half a century later, the synagogue opened to the public in 2012, and the Jewish Museum of Porto opened in 2015.

Inside Synagogue Kadoorie Mekor Haim in Porto (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The building stands on the corner of Rua Guerra Junqueiro and Rua João Martins Branco, in the residential area of Campo Alegre.

The synagogue is a rectangular structure, oriented west to east, with a tiled roof and cupola. Steps lead up to the west façade with its large arch and portico. Inside, the main hall has a domed ceiling and a balcony It is decorated with Hebrew passages from the Torah and Moroccan-Sephardic decorations.

Today, the community includes Jews from a variety of backgrounds, including Poland, Egypt, the US, India, Russia, Israel, Spain, Portugal and England. The present rabbi, Daniel Litvak, is from Argentina, and the vice-president, Isabel Ferreira Lopes, is a granddaughter of Captain Barros Basto.

Prayer books and prayer shawls on a shelf welcoming visitors to the synagogue in Porto (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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