A Jewish cultural and religious center – the first of its kind in Portugal in more than 500 years – will be opened in the city of Trancoso, according to a formal agreement signed recently by Mayor Júlio José Saraiva Sarmento and Shavei Israel Chairman Michael Freund.
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.
“I believe the new cultural center will play an integral role in assisting those Bnei Anousim who wish to return to the Jewish people. For centuries, Trancoso was home to a large number of Bnei Anousim and it has a riveting history. We are now making great strides in providing the opportunity for a renewal of Jewish life in the region for those who seek it,” said Michael Freund.
This is a "historic event for Jewish life in Portugal, and the center will also serve to commemorate the countless Portuguese Jews who were persecuted, displaced or forcibly converted more than five centuries ago,” Freund added.
At the ceremony, the mayor emphasized the center’s importance, saying: “This center is very important to the people of Trancoso and all of Portugal. I am sure that it will leave its mark on the region, and it signifies our commitment to recalling the past and rebuilding Jewish life,” Mayor Sarmento also added. “I am delighted to be working together with Shavei Israel on this project, and I am sure that together we can turn this center into a thriving institution full of life and activity.”
Trancoso 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 Trancoso is the Casa do Gato Negro in Largo Luis de Albuquerque, which used to serve as a synagogue and rabbi’s residence.
One of Trancoso’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.