Portuguese town reopens renovated museum about crypto-Jews


(JTA) — The Portuguese town of Belmonte has reopened its Jewish museum — the largest in the world about crypto-Jews — following a $350,000 renovation project.

The reopening earlier this month, with new interactive exhibitions, was timed to be ready for the annual European Days of Jewish Culture project in early September.

“You could say that this is a totally new museum and we are confident that it will become a reference point for Sephardic culture,” Belmonte’s mayor, António Dias Rocha, told the Lusa news agency earlier this month. “The aim is for visitors to understand how it was possible for our Jews to remain so many years in Belmonte.”

The museum, which was founded in 2005, includes reconstructed murals and features the individual stories of Belmonte Jews. Dias Rocha said it is projected to attract 100,000 visitors annually.

Thirty-five countries will be participating in culture project. Spain will feature a Jewish film festival in Barcelona. In the Netherlands, visitors will be able to access the Middelburg Synagogue, an 18th-century establishment that was built by exiled Portuguese Jews and is the oldest of its kind outside Amsterdam. It is generally not open to the public.

This year’s theme of “Diasporas” is particularly relevant to Belmonte, which in the 15th century saw an influx of Jewish refugees fleeing the Inquisition from Spain. When the Inquisition spread to Portugal in 1536, many of the hundreds of Jewish families in Belmonte fled and became refugees. But many stayed and continued to practice Judaism in secrecy, becoming crypto-Jews, or anusim. The community existed as such as late as the early 20th century before disappearing.

In recent years, rabbis and activists from the Shavei Israel group, which seeks to reconnect the descendants of the anusim to Judaism, have re-established a small community in Belmonte.

Belmonte is one of only three locales in Portugal with a functioning synagogue, along with Lisbon and Porto. In recent years, local and national tourism bodies have invested millions of dollars in attracting tourists to Belmonte, including by setting up a kosher market each year in September since 2010.

Separately, in Lisbon, Jewish community leaders and municipal workers are preparing for the opening of that city’s Jewish museum scheduled for this year.

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