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Israeli NGO to run Jewish center in northern Portugal

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(JTA) — A Portuguese town once heavily populated by Jews has invited an Israeli NGO to run its new Jewish cultural center.

Shavei Israel, a Jerusalem-based nonprofit that does outreach programs to former Jews, will begin operating the center in Trancoso, in the mountains of northern Portugal, according to Michael Freund, the organization’s founder.

Many Jews settled in Trancoso in the late 15th century to escape the Spanish Inquisition, under which they were forcibly converted to Christianity, Freund said. “At a certain point, Trancoso’s population was half-Jewish or nearly half-Jewish,” he said. Currently, none of Trancoso’s 5,000 residents are Jewish, according to Freund. 

The Isaac Cardoso Center for Jewish Interpretation, which is expected to open in the coming months and will also house a synagogue, was dedicated last month. According to a local newspaper, Gazeta de Viseu, the construction will cost the municipality about $1.5 million and is intended to attract increased tourism. But Freund hopes the center will “become an address for the many descendants of the anusim [forcibly-converted Jews] that live in northern Portugal.”

Freund told JTA that Shavei Israel would hold seminars and symposiums as well as regular classes on Judaism and Hebrew. Shavei Israel, which has a permanent emissary in Portugal, estimates there are tens of thousands of descendents of forcibly-converted Jews, if not hundreds of thousands, living in the region. The organization aims to help such people explore their Jewish roots.

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