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Rosenberg joins effort to restore synagogue in Portugal

  • Torah covers, cemetery, synagogue Richie Davis—submitted phtoto

  • Torah covers, cemetery, synagogue Richie Davis—submitted phtoto

  • Torah covers, cemetery, synagogue Richie Davis—submitted phtoto

  • Torah covers, cemetery, synagogue Richie Davis—submitted phtoto



Recorder Staff
Monday, May 08, 2017

About 1,000 miles out to sea, and thousands of miles from home, Massachusetts Senate President Stan Rosenberg of Amherst has played a small role in rededicating the oldest synagogue in the Azores, and one of the oldest in Portugal.

The restoration project was led by Sen. Michael Rodrigues, D-Fall River, and the Azorean Jewish Heritage Foundation that he helped found in 2012 after visiting the decrepit Ponta Delgada building a year or so earlier. His work resulted in an April 2015 dedication of the 19th-century Sahar Hassamain synagogue on the island of Sao Miguel as a museum.

“I’m an incidental player,” says Rosenberg, who accompanied Rodrigues to the Azores, a nine-island chain off the Portuguese coast on a week’s vacation last month. But during the trip, which marked Rosenberg’s fourth visit to the Azores, the state’s Senate president, who is Jewish, helped present a donated pair of covers for the museum’s Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures, for which he offered a blessing in Hebrew.

Historical significance

After the Jews of Portugal were expelled in 1496, they emigrated in large numbers to Amsterdam and to Morocco, but after Portugal’s liberal revolution in 1820, the Inquisition ended in the country, with Jews seeking permission to move back to Ponta Delgada on Sao Miguel. Their synagogue there was dedicated in 1836 by Jews returning from Morocco, shortly after a Jewish cemetery was started.

The Jewish community, which reportedly supported as many as five synagogues and three cemeteries on the island at one time, began to die off and move on. The last rabbi, Samuel Albo, died in 1919, and Sahar Hassamain — which is Hebrew for Gates of Heaven” — was shuttered in 1967.

Massachusetts has what’s believed to be the nation’s largest Portuguese-American population, largely concentrated in the southeastern area with Fall River as its hub. A majority of the people come from the Azores.

“Of the 180,000 or so people in my district, at least 50 percent have Portuguese blood, and probably 80 percent of the Portuguese are Azoreans,” explained Rodrigues, whose ancestors are from mainland Portugal. “Whenever I go to Ponta Delgada, I’m not there half an hour before I run into somebody from Fall River. There are about 150,000 people living on the island and there are probably 600,000 Azoreans living in Fall River.”

“My whole life, I knew of the close relationship the Portuguese and Jewish people had, and I heard all of these stories,” says Rodrigues. But about a decade ago, while visiting the Azores, it was raining and he went with a couple of Jewish friends to visit the former synagogue.

“I walked into this building with half a roof, and it was just totally deteriorated,” Rodrigues recalls. “I couldn’t see a place of worship stay like that.”

Neither could Azoreans, who had begun an Azores Synagogue Restoration Committee in Ponta Delgada, the Azorean capital city, with a population about equal to that of Franklin County. They managed to win a grant from the European Union, which was matched by the city, to create a museum and library in the building. Rodrigues and friends formed the Azorean Jewish Heritage Foundation in 2012 to raise additional money to restore the sanctuary.

Rosenberg, Massachusetts’ first Jewish Senate president, who at one time thought he would study to become a rabbi, has visited the Azores three or four times to vacation. He recalls touring the old synagogue with Rodrigues during his first trip, “I saw the dilapidated condition it was in.”

They returned in April 2015 when the museum was dedicated. He returned with Rodrigues to the Azores again, in part to present two covers that had been donated for the synagogue’s torahs.

He offered a blessing over the new torah covers.

Rosenberg describes himself as “a cheerleader more than anything else” in the restoration project, and with no Jews remaining on the island, he has helped as a visiting resource. He said he was also curious about some of the artifacts in the museum, a few of which he helped to identify, like a ritual spice box used in the Havdalah ceremony that ends the sabbath.

The foundation has paid for two professors specializing in Sephardic Judaism, from the University of Texas and New York University, to begin cataloging thousands of documents, artifacts and other materials for the museum.

“We have a lot more work to do, but we don’t have the money,” said Rodrigues.

Rosenberg suggested during the most recent trip that Jewish seminary students could be hired to help continue the enormous task, and he offered to help raise money toward the effort.

At the Jewish cemetery, accompanied by the island’s last remaining Jew — who was converted to Christianity as a child after the synagogue was shuttered in 1967 — Rosenberg said the mourner’s kaddish, the Jewish ritual prayer for the dead.

“I’ve made it a practice every time I go, to go with the only surviving Jew, to pay respect for his family and others. It’s very meaningful,” he said.

Rosenberg said the project is a reminder, especially at a time when there’s a tremendous movement of refugees across the globe, that the legacy of displaced people is an important struggle throughout history.

“What’s really amazing to me in this place was that it was non-Jews who decided to restore the synagogue and use it to tell the story of how Jews lived there and were driven out, as reminder that this does happen, that this history should hopefully not be repeated.”