Malori Asman, owner of Amazing Journeys, which specializes in leading tours for Jewish singles, first heard about the Sahar Hassamain Synagogue from Cheryl Stern, a prospective client from the Boston area inquiring about the company’s June 5-17 tour of mainland Portugal and the Madeira and Azores islands.
A small synagogue, unused since the 1960s and hidden in a house on an unassuming street in Ponta Delgada — an island town in Portugal’s Azores islands — once again was filled with the sound of Shabbat prayers last month, thanks to 33 Jewish tourists led by a Pittsburgh-based travel company.
Malori Asman, owner of Amazing Journeys, which specializes in leading tours for Jewish singles, first heard about the Sahar Hassamain Synagogue from Cheryl Stern, a prospective client from the Boston area inquiring about the company’s June 5-17 tour of mainland Portugal and the Madeira and Azores islands. Stern asked Asman if she planned to take her group to visit the recently refurbished synagogue on the island of São Miguel while there.
Stern told Asman that she had a “special connection to the Azores” because her father, Aaron Mittleman, who died last February, had been instrumental in securing the funds for the renovation and preservation of the shul. It was a project he had worked on for almost 30 years.
Mittleman, a resident of Fall River, Mass., had been in Ponta Delgada on a business trip in 1987 along with several colleagues, including Paula Raposa, who had grown up in that town before immigrating to Massachusetts in the 1960s.
While having coffee in a cafe, the group was told of the hidden synagogue, which happened to be next door to Raposa, who is Catholic. She recalled that the group was able to obtain the key to the building that housed the 19th-century synagogue and take a look.
She was stunned.
“I was born there, and my parents were born there,” Raposa explained. “No one knew about that synagogue. It was a secret.”
The Sahar Hassamain (Gates of Heaven) Synagogue, once home to a small but thriving Jewish community, was in total disrepair, Raposa said, but she was touched by the beauty of the sanctuary, as well as its historical significance.
When she returned home to Massachusetts, she and Mittle-man established a nonprofit to raise funds to refurbish the synagogue and turn it into a museum to honor the Jewish presence that was once so important to the island. After years of work and navigating administrative red tape, Raposa and Mittleman were able to secure a grant from European Union groups devoted to the preservation of historical monuments in the amount of 300,000 euros.
“The Jewish people who built that synagogue had a huge impact on business there,” Raposa said. “We felt it was important to preserve an important piece of history.”
The refurbished 67-seat sanctuary was rededicated on April 24, 2015 with a Shabbat service of 40 people, about half of them Jews. It was the first known Jewish service in the Azores in nearly 50 years, The Herald News reported at the time.
While the building has received more than 6,000 visitors to tour its museum of Jewish artifacts since the rededication, and the sanctuary has four Torahs in its ark, it is not used for services because there are no practicing Jews left on the island, according to Raposa.
There are, however, many Crypto-Jews — those whose ancestors were forced to convert to Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition — who maintain Jewish customs such as lighting candles on Friday nights, but often don’t know why.
When Asman heard about the synagogue from Stern, she put it on her group’s itinerary, and booked a tour of the museum. But after exploring the building, members of the group wanted to know if they could celebrate Shabbat there the next day.
At first, the administrator at Ponta Delgada’s city hall refused. But after much persistence, and the involvement of a state senator from Massachusetts and the town’s mayor’s office, the group got the green light to hold a service at Sahar Hassamain.
Asman picked up Portu-guese sweet bread at a local market, bought some wine and, along with the Shabbat candlesticks with which she typically travels, set up a Kabbalat Shabbat service for her group.
“It was so touching,” Asman said. “This is a building that was built for prayer, and it had been so long since Jews occupied the area. It was so meaningful to fill the room with prayer, as it was intended.”
For traveler Yvette Diamond of Owings Mills, Md., the service at Sahar Hassamain took on special significance because it came on the heels of a stop in Lisbon when the group heard of the tragic history of the Jews in Portugal who had fled Spain seeking refuge during the Inquisition. They were forced to convert or had their children taken and sold to become slaves to the Portuguese.
The shul is housed in what was the home of a rabbi, built in 1836 and was concealed from the public. The building contains a mikvah, and the bimah is in the center of the sanctuary in typical Sephardic fashion, Diamond said.
Heidie Rothschild of Alex-andria, Va., said it was an amazing experience.
“For me, I’m not very much a practicing Jew, but … it felt like a very nice way to return to Judaism.”
Toby Tabachnick writes for The Jewish Chronicle, an affiliated publication of the Jewish Exponent.