On April 26, 1654, the last Jewish residents of the Brazilian town of Recife departed the Portuguese colony after being given an order of expulsion.
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When the Inquisition was initially implemented in Portugal in 1497, all Jews were forced to undergo baptism, and were forbidden from emigrating. Many continued to practice their Judaism clandestinely, and when they were able to leave, one favored destination was Brazil. There, they made up a good percentage of the 50,000 Europeans who had settled there by 1624, working in commerce and other professions (even as priests), and setting up sugar plantations and mills.
During the 17th century, the combined Spanish-Portuguese monarchy was involved in an ongoing conflict – the Eighty Years War -- with the Netherlands. The war extended to the New World, where the forces of the Dutch East and West India Companies battled with the Portuguese and for a period took possession of Portuguese colonial outposts. By 1630, the Portuguese colony in Recife, Pernambuco, on the Atlantic coast, was among the parts of northeastern Brazil conquered by Dutch forces.
Under the brief period of Dutch rule, converso Jews were permitted to openly practice their faith. During this time, Jews were involved in building infrastructure (roads, bridges, sewerage system) in the colony, in slave trade, and also in the profitable sugar production industry. By 1645, according to Dutch historian Franz Leonard Schalkwijk, there were 1,630 Jews living in Recife, a number equal to the Jewish population of Amsterdam at the time.
The prominence and economic success of Brazil’s Jews stirred up resentment among the colony’s Christians, who participated in the ongoing Portuguese campaign to push out the Dutch. That campaign went from 1645 until January 26, 1654, the date the Dutch capitulated to Portuguese liberation forces.
In the interim, probably in 1636, the Jews had established a synagogue – Kahal Zur Yisrael – in Recife, the first in the New World. The Jewish community supported a primary Talmud Torah school and a more advanced Gemara school, and a charitable fund.
A book of records that survived provides evidence of all of the services provided by the community, and outlines the customs and regulations by which it functioned. For example, the synagogue had assigned seats, which no one was permitted to change, and on Shabbat Nahamu, the first Sabbath after Tisha Be’Av, funds were collected for the Jewish community in the Land of Israel. This “minute book” lists signatures of 171 members, providing a valuable source of the names of some of the Jewish residents of Brazil. Many of the families involved in the founding of the Shearith Israel Sephardi synagogue in New York could trace their roots back to Recife by way of the minute book.
The transition back to Portuguese rule in 1654 was orderly, and gave Dutch and Jewish residents three months to liquidate their assets (they were permitted to take property with them) and leave. Most Jews went to Amsterdam, some settled on other islands in the Caribbean Sea, including Curacao, and another 23 famously made it to New Amsterdam, later known as New York. Those New Christians who dared to remain in Brazil found themselves pursued by the Inquisition and were sometimes shipped back to Portugal for trial before the Inquisition there.
The two-story building that housed the Kahal Zur synagogue, in the Street of the Jews, was torn down early in the 20th century. Later, it was reconstructed and reopened as a museum of Jewish history in Brazil in 2001.