Michael Rodrigues takes up cause of restoring Azorean Jewish heritage

Catholic politician helped restoration of abandoned synagogue 

PICTURES OF THE old synagogue show a decrepit building with peeling paint, broken furniture, and rotting wood. Prayer books were ripped. There were water leaks, vermin, and structural damage. It looked like what it was – a house of worship abandoned for more than 40 years, built to serve a community that no longer existed. 

Today, the restored synagogue in Ponta Delgada, the capital of the Portuguese Azores, welcomes local schoolchildren who come to learn about the islands’ Jewish history as well as a stream of visitors making stopovers on cruise ships.  

The synagogue’s revitalization and ongoing efforts to preserve the Jewish history of the Azores is a story of determined persistence that includes an unlikely player who lives some 2,400 miles away: a Catholic politician from Massachusetts. State Sen. Michael Rodrigues has for the past decade been a champion of projects aimed at restoring Jewish historic sites in the Azores, a string of islands in the North Atlantic that form an autonomous region of Portugal. Rodrigues, whose family has Portuguese roots, says fundraising for and working on the restoration has become a passion and a hobby for him.   

“When I walked into this temple and saw a place of worship in total disrepair, in destruction, it just broke my heart. I knew I had to try to help restore it,” said Rodrigues, a Democrat from Westport who chairs the Senate Ways and Means Committee.  

Torah scrolls in the restored Sahar Hassamain synagogue in the Azores, including one donated by a Fall River congregation. (Photo by Michael Rodrigues)

The Sahar Hassamain Synagogue, whose name means Gates of Heaven in Hebrew, was established in 1836 on Sao Miguel Island in the Azores to serve a Jewish community that had experienced centuries of ups and downs in Portugal.  

Portugal was a haven for Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition in 1492 – until the Portuguese king issued an expulsion act four years later, and Jews were forced to leave or convert. Many Jews fled to the Azores, but the inquisition spread and some Jews there were jailed or killed.  

In 1818, a number of Jewish families relocated from Morocco to the Azores, and became active in Azorean business, commerce, and trade. It is those Jews who established Sahar Hassamain. Yet a decline in the orange trade in the late 1800s led to the exodus of many Jews involved in the industry, according to a history compiled by the Azorean Jewish Heritage Foundation. Large numbers of Jews also converted over the years due to fear of persecution, particularly during World War II, or because of pressure to convert to participate in business. Over time, the community died out. 

A piece of artwork found in a restored synagogue at Ponta Delgada. (Courtesy of Michael Rodrigues)

The Sahar Hassamain Synagogue was effectively abandoned in the 1950s, although a group of Jewish soldiers from a US military base held one last service there on Yom Kippur in 1966, according to historian Jose de Almeida Mello.  

In the 1980s, a group based in Fall River, which has a large Portuguese community, tried to restore the synagogue, but failed. Paula Raposa, a Somerset resident who was born in the Azores, said she got involved in early attempts to restore the building after visiting it as part of a business delegation when she was chairman of the board of the Fall River Chamber of Commerce. The delegation included Jewish Fall River business owner Aaron Mittleman, who would go on to help lead the effort to restore the synagogue for years. Raposa said the group tried fundraising but was unable to get anyone in the Azores to champion the project. “It was very difficult. No one knew who owned the synagogue, then they changed mayors,” Raposa said of the situation in the Azores capital 

Another revitalization effort started in the early 2000s, and in 2009, the city of Ponta Delgada got a 99-year lease on the building. In 2010, Rodrigues, whose Fall River area district has a large Azorean population, heard about the synagogue while on a trip to the Azores and visited for the first time. He returned months later with two Jewish friends. One of them, Gideon Gradman, then a Boston resident working in renewable energy, said he requested to see the synagogue while on a business trip organized by Rodrigues because of his interest in Jewish history. 

“We went to visit the synagogue, and we all left in tears to see the condition it was in,” Rodrigues said. 

The group formed the Azorean Jewish Heritage Foundation, a small nonprofit now led by Gradman that supports historic preservation of Azorean Jewish sites and artifacts.  

Raposa said the city lease and the ability to get a sizeable grant from the European Union made the difference in getting the synagogue restoration project off the ground this time. Those involved say Rodrigues’ political connections, clout, and ability to fundraise also had an impact.    

Dr. Jose DaAlmeida Mello, city of Ponta Delgada cultural attache and leader of the Shahar Hassamain restoration project in the synagogue’s new library. (Courtesy Sen. Michael Rodrigues)

Rodrigues said the government grant paid to renovate the building’s structure, but private fundraising was necessary to rebuild the religious components and furnishings – buying prayerbooks and Torah scroll covers, restoring the sanctuary and woodwork, and fixing furniture, rugs, and chandeliers. The foundation bought religious books and books about Jewish history to fill the synagogue library. They identified candelabras in an antique store that had been stolen from the synagogue and bought them back, Rodrigues said. 

Because he was a senator, he was able to bring some of the people that served with him in the Senate and House, people of Jewish descent, to come to visit the Azores or make a financial contribution,” Raposa said. Gradman said Rodrigues made connections between Americans and Azoreans, and between Jewish and non-Jewish supporters. Then-state treasurer Steven Grossman’s family foundation donated new prayerbooks. Senate presidents Stan Rosenberg and Karen Spilka have both visited the synagogue with Rodrigues, as have Sen. Marc Pacheco, Rep. Antonio Cabral, and Sen. Cynthia Creem.   

In 2015, the synagogue was reopened as a cultural center and museum. Because there is no longer a Jewish community on the island, it is not used as a functioning synagogue, though occasional services are held there upon request. It has become a go-to destination for Jewish cruise ship travelers. Schoolchildren also come each year for tours to learn about the Azores’ Jewish history. Raposa said the museum was getting around 2,000 visitors a year pre-COVID. It is said to be the oldest Portuguese synagogue still standing. 

Since then, Rodrigues has remained involved in the Azorean Jewish Heritage Foundation, although fundraising slowed down after the synagogue restoration. The foundation raised $80,000 in two years in 2014 and 2015, according to tax returns, but has since been raising between $1,500 and $4,000 annually. 

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Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

The foundation is now turning its attention to the Jewish cemeteries in Portugal to determine what the needs are for maintenance and record-keeping. The synagogue restoration turned up a trove of documents, which shed light on everyday Jewish life in the community and communications between the synagogue’s rabbi and Jews abroad. The foundation has offered to support efforts to translate and digitize the papers. Rodrigues said he is also getting involved in supporting a new Jewish museum in Lisbon, which is in the planning stages and being designed by renowned architect Daniel Libeksind. 

Rodrigues leads tours to the Portuguese mainland and the Azores, and he now brings visitors to the restored synagogue. “People are amazed, it’s breathtaking, at how beautiful and how powerful it is, and the story behind it,” Rodrigues said.