For the first time in more than half a millennium, an eruv has been constructed in Portugal for the small Jewish community that still lives in the historic town of Belmonte.
Although there are now around just 50 Jews remaining in the town as many others have made aliyah to Israel, Belmonte boasts a beautiful synagogue, a mikveh ritual bath and now a boundary demarcation used by practicing Jews to allow them to carry objects within public spaces on Shabbat.
The expulsion of Jews from Portugal in 1497, subsequent massacres of the Jews there and the Portuguese inquisition which began in 1536 brought Jewish life in the country to a catastrophic end, with tens of thousands of Jews fleeing the country.
But some Jews, despite being forcibly converted to Christianity, preserved their Jewish practices and traditions in secret throughout the intervening centuries.
From the end of the 15th century up until the beginning of the 21st century, hundreds of such conversos continued to live in Belmonte, marrying only within their own community of crypto-Jews.
Many had originally fled the earlier Spanish inquisition and expulsion of Jews in 1492 and took up residence in Belmonte in eastern Portugal close to the border with Spain.
Rabbi Avraham Franco, who began work as the rabbi of the Belmonte Jewish community in January, worked to gain approval for the eruv from the municipal authority and the town’s mayor, who decided to fund the boundary entirely out of the municipal coffers.
“We have succeeded in adding an important Jewish component to the life of the Jewish community of Belmonte,” said Franco, an emissary of the Ohr Torah Stone network. “For the Jews who live here, this is the closing of a full circle. For hundreds of years they had practiced their Judaism in secret, and now they have merited to deepen their connection with their Jewish heritage and the Torah.”