A Synagogue in Lisbon and the Experience of History and Hope

March 1, 2024


Last Friday evening, my family and I attended the Erev Shabbat service at the Shaare Tikvah synagogue in Lisbon, Portugal. As we entered the immense gates, escorted by the police officers stationed there and having gone through a rigorous pre-registration process, I reflected on the name of the congregation, which means “Gates of Hope.” The city of Lisbon (Lisboa) and the country of Portugal has a rich Jewish history, and one that is filled with persecution and trauma, but also incredible resilience, persistence, and hope. My family and I were so fortunate to take a tour with the phenomenally knowledgeable and engaging Portuguese Jewish tour guide, Professor Paolo Scheffer. You can learn a bit about the history of Jews in Portugal, and about Professor Scheffer, at this link.

I found myself experiencing the Shabbat evening service last week in several ways that were unusual, but which held their own unique power and moved me in unexpected ways. As an orthodox synagogue, Shaare Tikvah requires women to sit upstairs, separated from the men. I peered over the railing as the rabbi led the service, and while it felt uncomfortable to be a woman rabbi asked to participate in services from behind a kind of fence, it gave me the opportunity to look around at the many people gathered there that evening, both the women, children and babies upstairs with me and the men and several children downstairs. There were approximately 90-100 people in attendance, in this historic and gorgeous synagogue (constructed in 1904, not long before our own historic sanctuary was built). The rabbi spoke in three languages in order to announce the page numbers: Portuguese, Hebrew, and English – and I heard all of those languages around me. There were American ex-pats of all ages, young Israeli families and tourists, and American tourists. I heard Portuguese, Spanish, Hebrew, English, French, and all kinds of accents when I overheard English. I would close my eyes to sing along with the snippets of psalms and prayers that I could follow, as much of it was chanted in a very different nusach (style) and given that I had to use a weekday siddur and do the Shabbat prayers from memory (there were so many people that they had run out of prayerbooks, at least for the upstairs section), I was delighted when a word or phrase jumped out at me and I could join along. The experience of hearing all of these voices, of people coming from so many different places (geographically, historically, Jewishly, spiritually, emotionally), praying our shared ancient words together, was indescribably moving. I found myself wishing that I could talk to every person there and ask them their story: What brought them here? Where is their family from? As we prayed for Israel and for the release of the hostages and the safety of the soldiers, as we prayed for healing for all who are suffering in this horrific war, my heart was both broken and profoundly full with the sense of pride in our tiny Am Yisrael, our tiny Jewish people. 

I had spent over four hours the day before learning about the crypto-Jews of Portugal, who held fast to their identity even if they had to hide it in order to be safe; about the Inquisition and the many other massacres of Jewish people including one in 1506 outside the Church of St Dominic for which there is a memorial, which Professor Paolo Scheffer goes to wipe the graffiti from nearly every day; Professor Scheffer had pointed out to us the many homes where if you knew what to look for, you could discern that the doorpost once held a mezuzah. He showed us a couple of 6th century tombs with Hebrew inscriptions and an inscribed stone tablet from a synagogue built in the 13th century that acknowledged the noblemen who had given the community permission and protection to build their synagogue in an area outside of the city walls. The tablet had been found deep underground during some recent construction, and had been placed in the outside courtyard of an historic church. Because those who found and moved it didn’t know Hebrew, it was placed upside down. Professor Scheffer made sure that eventually it was moved indoors, moved upright, and he is still petitioning the city to create a plaque describing it to visitors. In this week’s Torah portion, we read of Moses smashing the first set of tablets on which were inscribed the Ten Commandments, in his anger at the people’s construction of an idol. Tradition holds that the broken pieces of those first commandments were placed in an ark that traveled with the people through the wilderness, even though a new set of commandments were given. The Israelites traveled with the broken tablets and the whole tablets. What a beautiful image for what it is to be a part of the Jewish story.

Our tiny Jewish people, with so much history in so many places, has held onto the brokenness of our persecution and the wholeness of our remembering, rebuilding, persevering and preserving. Somehow, we never lost our determination to keep gathering, keep connecting with one another, keep praying, keep finding strength in our tradition and in each other, so that we do not lose hope. As we sing in Hatikvah “Od lo avda tikvateinu” – We have not yet lost our hope. My 15 year old son turned to me as we left the Lisbon synagogue and said “I have never felt more proud to be Jewish.” This was exactly the feeling that had come over me during the service, listening to the strength and diversity of the voices all around me, singing in a shared ancient language words of our shared, ancient hope.


Rabbi Berkman


Photo: Shaare Tikva in Lisbon

Photo: 13th century tablet from outside of a rural Portuguese synagogue