Old City of Porto, Portugal
Old City of Porto, PortugaliStock

Ahead of next month’s European Days of Jewish Culture project, the Portuguese town of Belmonte has renovated and reopened its Jewish museum, which is the largest in the world about crypto-Jews.

The reopening earlier this month followed extensive renovations costing $350,000 at the museum, which was founded in 2005, a municipal spokesperson told JTA. The renovations and the addition of interactive exhibitions were timed to be ready for this year’s edition of the Jewish culture project – a framework for events highlighting European Jewish culture that take place each year in the beginning of September in 35 countries.

“You could say this this 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,” he added.

In Barcelona, the European Days of Jewish Culture features a Jewish film festival. In the Netherlands, visitors will be able to access the Middelburg Synagogue, an 18th-century establishment which 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 from Spain, from where they fled because of the Church-led campaign of persecution known as the Inquisition. When the Inquisition spread to Portugal in 1536, many of Belmonte’s hundreds of Jewish families fled, becoming refugees themselves. 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, however, 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.

The eastern town of 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.

The renovated museum, which includes reconstruction of murals and insight into the individual stories of Belmonte’s Jews, is projected to attract 100,000 visitors annually, Dias Rocha said. According to Lusa, this figure is slightly higher than the total combined number of visitors who each year come to the town’s six other museums. In 2016, 92,000 tourists visited the city’s seven museums – an increase of 15 percent over 2015.

Separately, in Lisbon Jewish community leaders and municipal workers are preparing for the opening of that city’s Jewish museum, due to take place this year. In March, two Jewish museums opened in Braganca and Porto.