The town of Trancoso, Portugal.
The town of Trancoso, Portugal. Photo by Rabbi Elisa Salas, courtesy of Shavei Israel
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Rabbi Elisa Salas, courtesy of Shavei Israel
Shavei Israel Chairman Michael Freund, left, and Trancoso Mayor Júlio José Saraiva Sarmento, Nov 19, 2012. Photo by Rabbi Elisa Salas, courtesy of Shavei Israel
Rabbi Elisa Salas, courtesy of Shavei Israel
Shavei Israel Chairman Michael Freund, left, and Trancoso Mayor Júlio José Saraiva Sarmento sign the agreement on Nov 19, 2012. Photo by Rabbi Elisa Salas, courtesy of Shavei Israel

A Portuguese town once heavily populated by Jews has invited an Israeli NGO to run its new Jewish cultural center.

Shavei Israel, a Jerusalem-based nonprofit that does outreach programs to former Jews, will begin operating the center in Trancoso, in the mountains of northern Portugal, according to Michael Freund, the organization's founder.

Many Jews settled in Trancoso in the late 15th century to escape the Spanish Inquisition, under which they were forcibly converted to Christianity, Freund said, adding, “At a certain point, Trancoso’s population was half-Jewish or nearly half-Jewish.” Currently, according to Freund, none of Trancoso’s 5,000 residents are Jewish.

The Isaac Cardoso Center for Jewish Interpretation, which will be the first Jewish cultural and religious center of its kind in Portugal in more than 500 years, is expected to open in the coming months. The center, which will also house a synagogue, was dedicated in October and an agreement was signed between Shavei Israel and the Trancoso Municipality on November 19.

According to a local newspaper, Gazeta de Viseu, the construction will cost the municipality about $1.5 million and is intended to attract increased tourism. But Freund hopes the center will “become an address for the many descendants of the anusim [forcibly-converted Jews] that live in northern Portugal.”

Freund told JTA that Shavei Israel would hold seminars and symposiums as well as regular classes on Judaism and Hebrew. Shavei Israel, which has a permanent emissary in Portugal, estimates there are tens of thousands of descendents of forcibly converted Jews, if not hundreds of thousands, living in the region. The organization aims to help such people explore their Jewish roots.