A ceremony Feb. 3 in Ponta Delgada, on the island of San Miguel in the Portuguese Azores, kicked off the restoration of the Shaar Hashomaylum Synagogue, which was built around 1820 and consecrated in 1836 and is Portugal's oldest synagogue built after the Inquisition. Work is expected to be completed in 2015.
An article in the Falls River, Massachusetts Herald News reports that the ceremony was attended by Ponta Delgada Mayor Mayor José Manuel Bolieiro, along with Massachusetts state Sen. Michael Rodrigues, D-Westport, and Gideon Gradman, president of the Massachusetts based Azorean-Jewish Heritage Foundation.
The restoration project is scheduled to be completed in eight months. It will cost about $290,000, which will be provided by European Union groups devoted to the preservation of historical monuments.
"This intervention is not limited to recovering the architectural features" of the building, said Bolieiro at the ceremony held in the worship room of the synagogue. "We plan to create the necessary conditions for the preservation of the memory of Jewish presence in the Azores, through turning it into a museum."
The synagogue, which last held services in the 1950s, is located on an upper floor of a building that also included the rabbi's residence and whose exterior appearance is that of a normal house. The narrow sanctuary has plain walls, arched windows, an ornate chandelier and wooden fixtures including the Ark, benches, bimah and wall panelling. The restored synagogue will include a museum and library in the building's complex. In 2009, the Lisbon Jewish Community donated the synagogue to Ponta Delgada City Hall on a 99-year concession in exchange for guarantees that it would be restored.
José de Almeida Mello, who has long been involved in efforts to save the synagogue and has written and researched about its history, is coordinating the restoration. The Herald News reports that, according to Rodrigues, Mello will be aided by two U.S.-based Sephardic scholars:
[who] will travel to the Azores in May to identify and catalogue the many documents and artifacts found in the synagogue, some of them dating back to the 15th century.
"The Azorean-Jewish Heritage Foundation hired and will pay for these two researchers to go there," said Rodrigues. "Mello has 22 boxes full of papers, writings and letters that were left behind, but he cannot read Hebrew and no one on the island really can."
In 2008, travel writer Judith Fein wrote about visiting the synagogue with Mello. She wrote that she was
underwhelmed by the building itself…until he invited us to follow him upstairs, cautioning us to use the right side of the wooden staircase, as the middle was unstable.
Upstairs were the rabbi’s living quarters. Light streamed in from outside.
“Now for the surprise,” Almeida Mello said. “Up until today, it has been a secret.” In the dining room, he opened what looked like a pantry door. “Come,” he said. I gasped aloud at what I encountered on the other side: an entire synagogue, with 30-foot-high light blue walls, a bimah, 65 carved wooden seats around the outside of the sanctuary, a chandelier and a circumcision chair. Strewn around were old prayer books, which had probably been unseen and untouched for more than 60 years.
“The synagogue was constructed inside the rabbi’s home because religious buildings had to be behind walls, with no visible identification on the outside. Inside here, it was away from the eyes of the townspeople.”