The eruv is due to be completed on Monday and will be fit for use this coming Shabbat.
For the first time in more than half a millennium, an eruv, or Shabbat boundary, 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.
During the course of the 1990s, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel oversaw the pro forma conversion of the remaining conversos, granting them recognition as full-fledged Jews.
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.”
Franco told The Jerusalem Post that the Jews of Belmonte keep kosher and observe the laws of Shabbat and that therefore an eruv was an important addition for the community, regardless of the fact that there are so few Jews left there.
“Jewish life does exist here – there is even a Jewish museum, but the fact that the synagogue is so far away makes it hard for worshipers to get to the synagogue for Shabbat prayers,” Franco explained. “Moreover, they are unable to bring kids in strollers, since one cannot carry anything on the Shabbat in a public place if there is no eruv.”
The rabbi also said that the town’s historical connection to Jewish conversos and the expulsions and inquisitions on the Iberian Peninsula has made it a draw for Jewish tourists and that the eruv will help them, as well.
“When I arrived in the community, I asked myself what was missing, and which additional tools I could give the Jewish community in order to make it more active and vibrant,” added Franco, who received his rabbinical ordination from Ohr Torah Stone’s Torat Yosef Kollel and also studied in the network’s Straus-Amiel program, which trains emissaries for community work in the Diaspora.
Rabbi Boaz Pash, head of the Torat Yosef Kollel, traveled to Belmonte to confirm that the eruv, which encircles the entire town, meets the precise requirements of Jewish law for such boundaries.
“An eruv unites a community in so many different ways,” said Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander, president and rosh yeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone. “The resourcefulness and initiative shown by Rabbi Franco in erecting an eruv in Belmonte is a living example of the work done by Ohr Torah Stone’s emissaries around the world. Our rabbis and emissaries continue to serve a crucial factor in the development of Jewish life in Diaspora communities by connecting them to Judaism, Jewish tradition and the Torah.”