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The Portuguese Sephradi Jewish Community

By Jason Webber

In recent years, there has been much excitement amongst Jews with Portuguese ancestry following Portugal’s enactment of a law allowing them to reclaim their Portuguese citizenship despite their absence from Portugal for more than 500 years.

The Portuguese Sephradi Jewish Community

Jewish communities were present in the area of modern Portugal as far back as Roman times and for centuries played an important role in the development of Portugal’s economic, cultural and scientific life.

Following their expulsion from Spain in 1492, many Jews found refuge in Portugal and were granted asylum by King João II. As a result of Spanish pressure during the negotiations for the marriage of King Manuel I of Portugal to the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, King Manuel I had to yield to Spanish demands for the expulsion of the Jews from Portugal.

Many took refuge in Amsterdam, Constantinople, Salonica, Brazil and elsewhere and for hundreds of years have maintained their distinctive Spanish and Portuguese Jewish traditions, customs, language, music, poetry and food – some of which is noticeably similar to certain items on the menu at Club Lusitano!

Long after the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290, the first Jews to resettle in England were Spanish and Portuguese Jews who had taken refuge in Amsterdam. The oldest functioning synagogue in the United Kingdom – the Bevis Marks Synagogue of London, in continuous operation since 1701, is known as the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue and was built by Jews of Spanish and Portuguese descent. The Mocatta family has been associated with this community since its establishment.

To this day, the Bevis Marks Synagogue steadfastly follows the ritual, traditions, customs and music of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews. Much of the design and decoration of the synagogue was influenced by the great Portuguese synagogue of Amsterdam which also inspired the foundation of Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities in New Amsterdam (later New York) being the very first Jewish congregation in North America, Brazil, the Caribbean and elsewhere.

During World War II, Jews again found refuge in Portugal as a result of several Portuguese Ambassadors and Consuls issuing visas to Jewish refugees – most notably, Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese Consul in Bordeaux. Aristides de Sousa Mendes was a fascinating individual, who had 15 children, helped save certain members of the Rothschild family and was posthumously awarded the Ordem da Liberdade in 1986. Another was Carlos Sampaio Garrido, the Portuguese Ambassador in Budapest who is credited with saving over 100 Jews from Nazi-occupied Hungary in 1944.

Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese Consul in Bordeaux, during WWII

Today, there are growing Jewish communities in Lisbon, Cascais, Belmonte and Porto where, in the latter case, the Kadoorie – Mekor Haim Synagogue was built in the 1930s with the generosity of Kadoorie family in memory of their matriarch Laura Mocatta Kadoorie.

Kadoorie Mekor Haim Synagogue, Porto, Portugal

Club Lusitano has warmly welcomed members of its compatriots in the Portuguese Sephardi Jewish community in Hong Kong.


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