The Portuguese Phoenix

By Kevin Zdiara
Tuesday, February 26, 2013

PORTO, Portugal—Most tourists visit this northern Portuguese city of Porto to enjoy a glass of the world-famous port wine and stroll through the picturesque historic quarters near the Douro River.  They stay a day or two, then head south to Lisbon or the beaches.  There is not much evidence of a Jewish community.  Indeed, Portugal’s 3,000 Jews are little more than a drop in the bucket compared to the large community that lived here during the 14th and 15th centuries.  In Porto there are still signs of this long-gone Jewish history.  In a small alley in the Vitória neighborhood there are stone steps that the locals still call Escadas da Esnoga, the synagogue steps.  Parts of a 16th-century secret synagogue were recently discovered on the Rua de São Miguel.  Still, these are artifacts, not contemporary Jewish reality. 

But a remarkable rebirth is occurring just a short drive west, half-way between the city’s center and the Atlantic coast.  There, hidden between mansions on the side street of Rua Guerra Junqueiro, is one of the most impressive signs of contemporary Judaism on the Iberian Peninsula: the Kadoorie Mekor Haim (“Fountain of Life”) synagogue, which recently celebrated its 75th anniversary.  The building, framed by huge palm trees, is 160 feet wide and 65 feet high.  And while its exterior gives the impression of a majestic yet opaque place, the interior contains a beautiful, open 2,300-square-foot prayer room. Pink marble pillars, golden letters, wooden benches and floors, and colorful wall tiles create an atmosphere both Mediterranean and solemn. 

To understand the significance of the 75th anniversary celebration, one must understand the circumstances in which Mekor Haim was built and dedicated. 

The synagogue was largely the work of Porto Jewish leader Artur Carlos Barros Basto.  He was born a Christian but learned as a child that his family were cristãos novos, “new Christians,” descendants of Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity.  He underwent a formal conversion to Judaism and in 1923 began his obra de resgate, or “work of rescue,” as he called his efforts to bring “new Christians” back to the Jewish religion of their ancestors.  He had great success, recovering dozens, if not hundreds of individuals. 

Barros Basto imagined a great future for Portugal’s Jews and made it his mission to build a synagogue that would represent Judaism’s glory and greatness.  He worked tirelessly to realize his plan, securing financial help from Jews in England, the Netherlands, and France.  With this money he bought the land on which the synagogue stands.  On June 30, 1929, wearing his Portuguese captain’s uniform, he laid the foundation stone for Mekor Haim, burying a parchment in the earth bearing a prayer that God “bless this work, strengthen it, and let a torrent of the light of truth emanate from this fountain.” 

The groundbreaking was closely followed in many European Jewish communities.  One of the first reactions came from Baron Edmond de Rothschild, who contributed 500 pounds toward the construction.  A donation from David de Sola Pool’s Shearith Israel congregation of New York enabled Barros Basto to open an Institute of Jewish Theology in Porto, where he taught Hebrew, liturgy, theology, and sacred history to former “new Christians.”  But it was financial assistance from Lawrence and Horace Kadoorie that allowed Barros Basto to finish his project.  In 1933 the two brothers donated 2,000 pounds in the name of their father, Shanghai millionaire Sir Elly Kadoorie, and their late mother Laura, who was of Portuguese origin.  Later that year, Elly and Lawrence actually visited Porto, causing a sensation with their Rolls Royce.  Porto’s Jewish community immortalized the donors by naming the synagogue Kadoorie Mekor Haim. 

The synagogue was dedicated on January 13, 1938, at the height of Portugal’s Jewish renaissance.  Jewish notables came from many European countries to celebrate a miracle.  For them, the Kadoorie Mekor Haim synagogue in Porto symbolized a Jewish will to survive and to thrive: 500 years after the Inquisition had destroyed Jewish life in Portugal, a new Jewish house of worship was opening on the Iberian Peninsula. 

The dignitaries knew little of what would follow—or, indeed, what had already happened.  The world was five years into the Nazi regime in Germany, and violent anti-Semitism was resurgent throughout Europe.  In 1937, Barros Basto had been convicted of a criminal offense in a trial that was later shown to have anti-Semitic origins.  The 1938 synagogue dedication should have been one of the greatest days of his life, but the trial had devastated him.  His reputation and charisma were lost, and the entire Porto Jewish community was shaken. 

More troubles followed.  The year before Barros Basto bought the land for the synagogue, Porto’s German community, which had historically close ties to the port wine industry, had bought a plot of land just a few feet away in order to build a German school.  In later years, stones were thrown from the school into the synagogue.  Finally a row of trees was planted between the two buildings—so that the German schoolchildren, as the school board explained it, would not have to look at a Jewish house of worship. 

Porto’s Jewish community steadily fell apart, victim to Barros Basto’s conviction and the regime of Fascist leader António de Oliveira Salazar.  Little more than a decade after Mekor Haim’s dedication, the community was gone.  In the 1950s the synagogue’s doors were closed.  They would remain so for three decades. 

This would have been a sad ending for a synagogue called the “fountain of life.”  But in 1984, two Israelis looking for a place to celebrate Shabbat rediscovered the synagogue and began working to fill Kadoorie Mekor Haim with life again.  The synagogue was re-opened and has remained in use.  Struggling with difficulties and challenges, the community has shown a strong will to maintain Kadoorie Mekor Haim as the symbol of Jewish life that Barros Basto intended it to be.  After years of searching for the right spiritual guidance, the young Jewish community in Porto has found an Argentinean rabbi, Daniel Litvak. 

In the last decade, the number of Jews in Portugal has tripled.  At the 75th anniversary celebration, the synagogue was filled to the brim with young and hopeful faces.  The Kadoorie Mekkor Haim synagogue is the center of a living, inquiring Portuguese Judaism.  Almost a century after Barros Basto’s “work of rescue,” it is not merely a Jewish house of worship but, once again, the symbol of Jewish resilience, faith, and conviction. 

Kevin Zdiara is a freelance writer, frequent contributor to the German blog The Axis of Good, and a Ph.D. student in philosophy at the Max Weber Center for Cultural and Social Studies in Erfurt, Germany.

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