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Hehaver-Ohel Jacob History | Part III

  |   Institutional

Hehaver and Ohel Jacob - Peak and Decline - Old Breaks, New Paths

The Ohel Jacob and the B'nei Anusim

“Despite being Ashkenazi, the rabbi of the Shaareh Tikvah Synagogue, Mendel Diesendruck, drove the services in Sephardic rite because of the affinity of most Jews that attended. On the other hand, the “Polish Jews” who joined in the city, they preferred to make their own religious Ashkenazi rite, with songs and prayers in Yiddish, without hiring an officiant. The driving force of the coming of these Poles to Lisbon and first leader of this synagogue was Samuel Sorin. The existing book of records starts with the opening of the Ohel Jacob Synagogue on 15.11.1934, says Dina Sorin Cohen, Samuel Sorin’s daughter, who photographed the written pages in order translate them and send back this translation from Israel.” [Marina Pignatelli]

Aron Katzan, another leader of the Ohel Jacob Synagogue, describes the difficulties of Polish Jews legalization, especially those who only spoke Yiddish because they came from the villages, and by their economic difficulties which were visible in the meager clothes, discriminated by the Jews themselves who have long established in the city. These Poles would get aid from their own Embassy only during the Second World War and after. Until then, the allocation of visas was made by a Consul who went to the Ohel Jacob Synagogue just once in a while.

Around 1945, the Hehaber Association has installed itself on the Rosa Araujo Street, but the Ohel Jacob Synagogue already operated on Elias Garcia Avenue, where Aron Katzan’s grandfather, Pinchas Katzan, had become an officiant, between the 1930s and until the independence of Israel. Aron describes that even among these Ashkenazi Jews there were different affinities depending on the origins of each one. At this time, Sephardic Jews and Ashkenazi Jews attended both synagogues, Shaareh Tikvah and Ohel Jacob, and once more, this didn’t happen peacefully, there were always friction between ritual clutter, because that rigor and tradition of some Jews bumped with the experience and concepts of other Jews.

During the Second World War, the Ohel Jacob Synagogue worked with increased vitality and importance, taking into account the German and Polish diasporas caused by the Holocaust.

Thousands of Ashkenazi Jews took refuge in Portugal, availing themselves of Lisbon as a strategic point of leakage to other destinations, since the permission from the New State for these Jews was restricted to permission to pass and not a residence permit. The Salazarist regime could not be properly considered as anti-Semitic, but it was also not a welcoming of Jews. Still in 1932, “so even in the presence of the Constitution of 1911 and in the same year that Salazar became Head of the Government and who began the shaping of the New State, the social pressure of some Catholic groups against the Jews in various locations, like Pinhel, Covilhã and Arcozelo, was so great that, according to Captain Barros Basto, some Jewish families were themselves forced to start an authentic diaspora to the big cities, Lisbon or Porto.

That anti-Jewish reaction, especially in the interior of the Country and initiated during the New State, became irreversible until our days, because there is only one single community – the community of Belmonte -, which survived in the Beiras and Trás-os-Montes areas, of almost three dozen Jewish nuclei that existed.” [Emilio Correa]. Following this, during the Nazi period, there was particular concern in limiting the entry of Polish Jews as well as people considered indigent or poor into Portugal, at a time when the Country was experiencing an unemployment crisis. The Portuguese ambassador in Warsaw, César de Sousa Mendes, defended the danger that resided in the “defined intention to place in Portugal that surplus of Polish Jews that other countries absorbed each year and to which have been closed numerous borders“, referring to an existing group in Poland, which was intended to infiltrate Jews in Portugal. (…) José Catela, one of the main officials of the PVDE, stated that the Polish Jews were “a nasty chain of undesirable people, who made themselves noticed” (…). Using a xenophobic language, the surveillance Police associated Jews, illicit trade, espionage and communism as being all the same, which was very common in the speeches of the European Right, especially in French extreme right-wing ideology, for example.” [Susana Chalante] Once more, only the wealthy Jews would have other facilities in Portugal, and so there were then created three types of visas: residence, tourist (30 to 60 days) and transit (48 hours). In 1937, History repeats itself and the Jews would have to become the scapegoat of the attack on the President of the Council, Oliveira Salazar, once more by the reason of associating Jews to communists, although the real culprits had been the anarchists. Following this event, the PVDE carried out a considerable number of arrests and expulsions of German and Polish Jews.

Throughout this period, among several other institutions belonging to the Israeli Community, the Ohel Jacob Synagogue and the Hehaber Association had an exceptional importance; in fact, Hehaber helped the COMASSIS (Commission for Refugees Assistance), financed by JOINT and by HICEM (1927), unfolding itself in numerous strategies for saving the greater number of Jews as possible. Extinct in 1941, it is estimated that the COMASSIS, keeping the Economic Kitchen and the Israeli Hospital, has assisted over 40,000 Jewish refugees, providing daily food, clothing and health care.

At the end of Second World War, in which Moses Goldreich, a talmudist judge, lectured in Hebrew and Judaism, preparing two boys for the Bar Mitzvah, one Sephardic and the other Ashkenazi, at the Ohel Jacob Synagogue, that continued to be, until the 1960s, the synagogue of choice of Polish Families – “the poles of the meshes,” as they were known by the Portuguese population, because it was the business of many of them.” (…) “There were celebrated all Yom Tov (holy days), there were daily Arvit (a prayer at the end of the day) and there were very respected officiants, versed about the Jewish culture and religion. «(…) Eisenberg and Tennenbaum, for example, they read very well; and another officiant who used to go there was Salomão Cohen.» as Salomão Marques recalls.” [Marina Pignatelli]

Also the Hehaber Association recorded intense activity since the beginning of its creation, especially in 1932, which forced it to a change of premises, and then in 1933 when it already hosted 40 German refugees and when it stared an aid pedestal campaign and numerous related activities, from which stands out the zionist action for the feasibility of the emigration of these Jews to Palestine, becoming a representative of Keren Kayemet Le Israel, chaired by Sofia Abecassis, who was Sephardic, and integrating Siegfried Hiller and Fritz Neumenn, both Ashkenazis.

The Hehaber Association also recorded, in 1937, a series of regular meetings chaired by Rabbi Diesendruck with the aim of Hebrew teaching, Jewish history and culture, which were attended by an average of 40 young people. And in 1971 the number of members increased to 280, encouraged by a range of activities, with emphasis on the B’nei Akivah group who organized meetings with the same success of the Rabbi Diesendruck meetings.

In the long history of Hehaber, we must also point out other important events, such as the Great Dance of Victory, on 26 May 1945, and the covenant of Nella Basolla Maissa, on the 29th of the same month and year, at Elias Garcia Avenue, in commemoration of the end of the Second World War, the commemoration of the independence of the State of Israel in 1948, already at Rosa Araujo Street.

In 1978, there was a decrease of members, given the political instability generated by 25th of April events and, after a short period of some new light, the Hehaber finally began to lose its vitality, after internal dissents that led to the exit from the Rosa Araujo Street, where it had been held since 1948, returning to Elias Garcia Avenue, where was the Ohel Jacob Synagogue, and both cohabited accompanying the premises degradation over several years. It began a period of activities suspension between 1985 and 1998, approximately.

As to the Ohel Jacob Synagogue, it had begun its decline after the 1970’s, as it became difficult to keep the minimum quorum (minian) for the celebration of the religious rite. “Over the years, the first generation of Jews from the East and who frequented indiscriminately the two synagogues existing in Lisbon, particularly in great festivities, was disappearing and being replaced by a generation already well integrated in the CIL (Israeli Community of Lisbon)” [Marina Pignatelli]. The Ohel Jacob Synagogue was being inevitably limited to its founders and some members and a few visitors, who eventually disappeared as they were migrating or dying. Only one member, Sapese Noymak, who neither was religious, “made his point to go there every Saturday, because any Jew could appear in order to pray and someone had to open the door” (told Salomão Marques), a remarkable gesture kept for years, until the arrival of a group of Marranos eager to “return”, in search of themselves, in search of those roots cut by centuries of Inquisition, a small group of people that would set a new benchmark in the history of Hehaber and the Ohel Jacob Synagogue.

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Samuel Sorin > Polish-American trader born in Poland on 15 December 1894 and deceased on March 1979 in the United States of America.
Aron Katzan > Polish civil engineer, born in the Azores on 10 July 1936 and deceased on 11 November 2013.
Belmonte > The only peninsular community legitimately heir of the ancient historical presence of the Sephardic Jews in Portugal. During the whole time of the Inquisition, this community managed to preserve many of the Jewish rites, prayers and social relations within the community. Despite the pressure for its dilution within the Portuguese Catholic society, many of the Belmonte people who were new-Christians continued to marry only among themselves for centuries.
In Rede de Judiarias de Portugal
Ohel Jacob
The synagogue of Progressive rite, the only Askenazi synagogue in Portugal, founded in 1934. Affiliate member of EUPJ/WUPJ (European Union of Progressive Judaism/World Union of Progressive Judaism) since April 2016.