” Closing the Circle” on Portuguese Citizenship for Descendants of Sephardi Jews

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    The New York Jewish Travel Guide had the opportunity to interview Ms. Rita Mayer Jardim, an attorney at Mayer Jardim, to discuss the topic of Portuguese citizenship for Sephardi Jewish descendants. The interview has been edited for clarity.

    NYJTG: We appreciate the opportunity to meet with you today. Could you please provide some background information about yourself, what sparked your interest in specializing in this specific field, and the driving force behind your work?

    Rita Mayer Jardim: Of course. I studied law in Portugal and later pursued studies in international human rights law at Oxford University. It was my exposure to human rights that gradually steered me toward citizenship law. At the time, I was working at the London law firm, Mishcon de Reya, when this law was enacted. The moment this law was approved, I felt a strong desire to be a part of what I consider a historical development, albeit in a relatively small capacity. I believe that this work held significant meaning for various reasons.

    From the very inception of the law, when applications became possible, I eagerly embraced the challenge. There were no precedents or established guidelines to follow, and that’s what made it more enticing. I had to navigate uncharted waters, determining how to establish the link between diverse family histories and the Sephardic anchor, whether it was in the distant past or a more recent connection. The sheer diversity of these cases intrigued me the most. Each application presented a unique blend of geography and history, making it more than just a legal task—it demanded an appreciation for the historical elements, which played a substantial role.

    Since early 2015, I’ve been engrossed in processing these applications, and it feels like I’ve traversed the entire spectrum of the Sephardic diaspora. While there’s still much to uncover intellectually, I’ve immersed myself in a multitude of stories that span different geographies and time periods.

    NYJTG: These cases indeed span the globe. Could you share one or two particularly interesting and rewarding cases you’ve handled?

    Rita Mayer Jardim: Absolutely, the cases I’ve encountered have been diverse and fascinating. Let me highlight a couple of memorable ones:

    The first case that comes to mind is a South African citizen, a Sephardic Jew, whose grandparents had roots in Rhodes and connections to Izmir and Salonika. This individual became the first South African citizen to obtain Portuguese citizenship through this law. It was a significant milestone for me, as it marked the beginning of my work in this field.

    The second case that stands out is that of a US citizen who, to his surprise, discovered that his ancestor was the founder of the Savannah congregation and one of the early colonial settlers. What made this case exceptional was that, through a genealogy study, we were able to trace back to the inquisition procedures involving this man’s ancestors. It was a deeply historical and fascinating journey.

    Brazil has also been a significant focus, with many applicants tracing their ancestry back to the time of Portuguese colonization. These are Brazilians whose families settled in Brazil 400 years ago, and their ancestors were Converso, the New Christians.

    Israel is another area of interest, with frequent applicants from there, given the law’s popularity in the country. I’ve also received applications from various other countries, including those of Moroccan or Syrian descent who have contemporary ties to Israel. Additionally, there have been applicants from the Netherlands, the UK, and other European countries, although some already possess European citizenship. The motivations behind these applications vary widely.

    Ms. Jardim addressing The Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue- New York Jewish Travel Guide

     NYJTG: Is it accurate that individuals of Sephardic ancestry are seeking Portuguese citizenship in England?

    Rita Mayer Jardim: That’s absolutely correct. While there may not be as many applicants as some might expect, there are indeed a notable number of individuals pursuing Portuguese citizenship. Their motivations are multifaceted. For many, it’s a matter of preserving their European identity. It’s a statement, asserting, “We are European.” Additionally, it’s a practical consideration. They want to continue working as they always have, with the freedom of movement within Europe, devoid of boundaries. They desire the ability to travel, study, and remain part of a community to which they’ve long felt a sense of belonging.

    So yes, there has been an increase in applications, and while the numbers may not be staggering, the significance lies in the underlying motivations and the desire to maintain their European ties.

    NYJTG: There is indeed growing interest in Portuguese citizenship for Sephardi Jews. Could you provide some insights into the process? How easy is it to obtain Portuguese citizenship? How long does it typically take? Who is eligible? And what are the steps involved?

    Rita Mayer Jardim: The process consists of two stages. Initially, you must convince one of the Jewish communities in Portugal that you have a tradition of belonging to a Sephardic community of Portuguese origin, with Portuguese being understood in a broader Iberian context. Once you’ve successfully convinced one of these communities, you will receive a certificate confirming that you meet the requirements for citizenship under this law, with your family tree documented on the back. This stage typically takes around two months, but it can vary in complexity depending on your personal circumstances, family history, geographic origins, and current situation. Each case is unique, but two months is the average processing time for this part.

    The next stage involves applying for citizenship through the Ministry of Justice of Portugal. This is a bureaucratic process that currently takes approximately two years. Initially, it was much quicker, with some cases being decided in as little as six months. However, due to the increasing number of applications received regularly, the processing time has extended. This trend is expected to continue, particularly with the impending conclusion of the Spanish law, which, while similar in requiring proof of Sephardic heritage, imposes additional requirements such as language and cultural tests.

    Portugal, in contrast, does not have such tests. Furthermore, while Spain necessitates a physical presence for certain processes, Portugal offers a more straightforward route, as there is no mandatory requirement to visit the country. Many new citizens eventually choose to visit Portugal, often for the first time, and it tends to be a positive experience.

    It’s worth noting that the Portuguese law was not established with an expiration date in mind. The government and Parliament decided, rightly so, that a fundamental right should not be limited by time. This has led to a significant influx of applications. Therefore, prospective applicants should anticipate waiting at least two years before obtaining their birth certificate and naturalized citizen registration, which then enables them to acquire a Portuguese passport either at a Portuguese consulate or in Portugal.

     NYJTG: So, they don’t have to come to Portugal?

    Rita Mayer Jardim: No, they should because they will love it, but it’s not mandatory. It’s not a requirement. Everything is done remotely through a power of attorney. When you hire a lawyer, documents are sent by courier. The first stage doesn’t have formalities in terms of legalization. The second stage requires proving a very important requirement: that the person is free of criminal records, so a formal document needs to be provided to prove that. There is discretion for the Ministry of Justice; there is the freedom to decide whether to grant or not, just because technically the law was drafted as an option for the Portuguese government. But there have been no refusals except since a criminal record, which, of course, is an impediment to citizenship. It takes a little bit of time, but slowly but surely you get to the desired outcome, which is to reconnect, to connect, to pay respect to your ancestors, and, very pragmatically, to be connected to a wider employment market as European citizens.

    NYJTG: This is the process through which applicants can establish their Portuguese Sephardic ancestry by providing the documents you’ve specified.

    Rita Mayer Jardim: Indeed, every case is unique, and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. It’s not a single document that will definitively prove your connection to Sephardic heritage; rather, it’s about demonstrating certain elements of proof. Establishing a genealogy linking you to a Portuguese ancestor from over 300 years ago isn’t the sole requirement. While it’s occasionally achievable, it’s quite rare. What carries more weight are the numerous elements of evidence, and it’s the combined impact of these various proofs that will determine the success of your case.

    NYJTG: Earlier, you mentioned some restrictions related to families and children in certain situations. Could you provide more details on this?

    Rita Mayer Jardim: Certainly. In the context of the Portuguese naturalization route to citizenship, individuals must be over 18 years old. So, children who are under 18 need to wait until they reach the legal age of 18 before pursuing this process. However, if they are very close to turning 18, they can obtain a certificate confirming their Sephardic heritage, but they won’t be able to use it for citizenship until they come of age.

    Families have the option to apply collectively, which is preferable in many cases as it eliminates the need to wait for everyone’s application to be processed. Each family member has an independent right to apply, which is why the minimum age requirement is set at 18. As adults, they have the choice to exercise this right or not.

    For spouses who are not of Sephardic descent, there is a facilitated path to Portuguese citizenship, not as descendants of Sephardic Jews but as spouses of Portuguese citizens. It’s important to note that these spouses must also be parents of Portuguese citizens. The non-Sephardic spouse may need to wait until both they and their children over 18 become Portuguese citizens. This waiting period is generally more than three years if the marriage has been in place for that duration. Citizenship through marriage in Portugal operates on these principles, with connections to Portugal established over a minimum period of three years, along with having Portuguese citizen children serving as such connections.

    Minor children can either wait until they reach the age of 18 to apply individually or, if the family decides to relocate to Portugal, they can accompany their parents. Every citizen has the right to move to Portugal whenever they choose, taking all family members, including dependents. Minors are considered dependents, and once a minor begins attending school in Portugal, they establish the necessary connections to the country. In this scenario, minors can acquire Portuguese citizenship as the children of naturalized citizens who have connections to Portugal. In summary, there are various avenues for an entire family willing to move to Portugal to obtain Portuguese citizenship.

    NYJTG: Is it possible to submit a DNA test as part of a citizenship application, and would it be accepted?

    Rita Mayer Jardim: From what I understand, and please keep in mind that I’m not a geneticist, DNA tests cannot definitively confirm Sephardic ancestry. These tests can indicate Iberian heritage, which might be relevant if you’re an American citizen with a history of living in the United States. Having an Iberian genetic marker could be a piece of the puzzle. However, on its own, it’s not sufficient evidence because, to the best of my knowledge, there are no specific genetic markers that can conclusively determine Sephardic origin.

    Nonetheless, some of my clients have undergone these tests, and what they often say is, “I saw my genealogy report stating that I was descended from a particular person, but I truly believed it when I saw the genetic test confirming that I have Iberian ancestry.” It’s more like a validation for some individuals. Those who are already confident in their Sephardic heritage based on family history and cultural connection may not feel the need for scientific proof. However, for someone who is less certain and receives a DNA test confirming Iberian ancestry, it can serve as a sort of scientific validation of their heritage.

    Ms. Jardim addressing The Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue- New York Jewish Travel Guide

    NYJTG: How many have applied, and how many have been naturalized so far?

    Rita Mayer Jardim: According to the data that I was provided, 30,000 have applied since 2015, of which 7,000 have naturalized. So close to 25%, and these numbers keep changing. Most of that total of 30,000 applicants since the beginning comprises Israeli citizens. They were followed by Turkish and Brazilian citizens, and then all the rest, including US citizens. The information I got is that, currently, most of the applications are coming from Brazilian citizens. Overall, there are still many Israelis. As I mentioned, there’s a lot of visibility in Israel about Portugal, tourism in Portugal, and living in Portugal. There was even a recent article in an Israeli newspaper that told the story of agricultural settlers—families that move to Portugal and are doing agricultural activities, especially in the areas that are very dry and require knowledge on how to make an orchard out of a desert, which the Israelis know very well how to do. They’ve been very successful, and large numbers of these families are enjoying the experience of living in Portugal.

    NYJTG: What drives individuals to seek Portuguese citizenship?

    Rita Mayer Jardim: There are various motivations behind this decision. For US, Dutch, or other European citizens, it often carries a deep emotional significance. Many of my clients express the sentiment of “closing the circle” and paying tribute to their ancestors. They feel like they are becoming a part of history. On the other hand, individuals from countries like South Africa, Turkey, or Brazil also share an emotional connection but usually have additional practical reasons. It’s not solely emotional for them; pragmatism plays a significant role. Israelis, for example, see it as expanding their options and security. Some individuals simply do it for the joy of it. I’ve heard people say, “This adds a new dimension to our family connections. Now we discover distant cousins we didn’t know we had, creating a stronger bond among us.”

    In essence, obtaining Portuguese citizenship is a blend of emotion, a unifying force, and a means of understanding one’s roots and the path that brought them to where they are today.

    NYJTG: Is it necessary for applicants to be of Jewish faith, or does the process apply to everyone?

    Rita Mayer Jardim: There’s no requirement for applicants to be Jewish. Portugal is a secular state, and its Constitution explicitly prohibits discrimination or preference based on religion. Therefore, the citizenship law couldn’t possibly demand adherence to a specific religion or religious observance. It’s not a religious law, and it cannot be granted based on religious criteria. Of course, if an applicant is currently affiliated with a Sephardic congregation, it may indirectly influence their case. However, one could be Ashkenazi and still be part of a Sephardic congregation for various reasons. Religion, by itself, is not a proof or requirement.

    Many of my Israeli clients, for instance, are secular Jews or belong to non-Orthodox congregations, like Reform Judaism. In the United States, several would fall into this category. I also have many clients who are descendants of Conversos or New Christians, and they haven’t converted to Judaism. Conversion is never a requirement. While religion is a part of the cultural context, non-religious applicants go through the same process.

    NYJTG: Is there a distinction in the application process between the Porto Jewish Community and the Lisbon Jewish Community? Is one more straightforward than the other?

    Rita Mayer Jardim: The application process itself is the same. However, the standard of proof may differ slightly between the two communities. I wouldn’t necessarily say one is easier than the other. They approach the secular nature of Portuguese law and its Constitution differently. Lisbon considers various factors, while Porto may place more emphasis on a specific religious denomination.

    NYJTG: How can our audience seek your expertise and guidance?

    Rita Mayer Jardim: I’m always open to discussing individuals’ stories and how the application process can work for them. The easiest way to reach me is through my email or WhatsApp number:

    Mobile: +351 960 427 131; Landline: +351 216 004 837; or +351 939 219 386; Email: rita.jardim@mayerjardim.com

    You can also visit my website for more information. https://www.mayerjardim.com/en/

    I appreciate your time, Ms. Jardim, and thank you for sharing this valuable information with us. Our readers will find it very informative.

    Meyer Harroch, the New York Jewish Travel Guide

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