An Algarve Jewish renaissance

By Susi Rogol Goodkind, November 7, 2011
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Services in the sun

Services in the sun

There are probably no more than 50 or 60 Jews resident in the Algarve today – expats from around the world, mainly, but of course hundreds more visit the region every year, attracted by the sunshine, the golf, the laid-back lifestyle and the charm of both its unspoilt inland villages and glitzy beach resorts.

It was the ambition of one man, South African Ralf Pinto, who had lived in the Algarve for more than 20 years, to bring the local Jews together. He developed a Jewish Heritage Centre in the region's capital, Faro, which has been visited by Jew and non-Jew alike; with his wife Judy he operated a communications network that got information out to a wide audience, and pulled visitors in to share special holidays and support the Centre.

Ralph Pinto died in August of this year but the legacy he left has inspired an astonishing turn of events.

A young American Rabbi, Zev Schwarcz, arrived in the Algarve with his wife and small child earlier in the summer. He met Ralf and was stirred by his dream because it was one he shared – of building a Jewish community where there was none before.

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, for the first time in possibly a hundred years, the Algarve had a Rabbi, a Sefer Torah (on loan from the shul in Gibraltar), a shofar, a borrowed roof terrace in the sunshine for the service (motorway on one side, beach-goers on the street below), a Baal Tefilla from Edgware and a Cohen from upstate New York. An Israeli family, local restaurateurs, barbequed lunch for the 'congregation'.

For Kol Nidre, more than 30 people arrived on that roof terrace: a young couple from Mexico, Israelis with babes in arms, a man who lived nearby and had heard the shofar the previous week, an Italian judo teacher, a London lawyer, two nurses from Wales.

At Yizkor the following day, Rabbi Zev called out every single name of every single parent past. Not Prime ministers, not royalty. Just our mothers and fathers long gone. Later, we watched the stars come out and broke the fast with shared salads and herrings and promises. Suddenly 'should do' became 'want to.'

There is little doubt that those promises will be kept. The rooftop succah was overflowing – with people who had not been under a succah since their Barmitzvah year. And since the Holidays every Shabbat has welcomed more than a Minyan's worth of enthusiastic 'converts' – those who are rediscovering their heritage and delighting in it.

The now? An impromptu tea at the Shalom restaurant in Albufeira on Sunday saw more than an exchange of cake recipes, when some 45 Jewish residents of the Algarve and interested visitors gathered together to plan the next stages of community-building; for once good relations took precedent over golf.

The intention now is to raise funds and find premises for a shul and a Sefer Torah on permanent loan; to set up a centre for activities that will include Hebrew lessons and offer Bar- and Bat-mitzvah classes; to work with wedding planners and hotels and restaurants able to offer fully Kosher or Jewish celebrations; and, immediately, to arrange the first of two Chanukah parties, which will be publicised in the local newspapers and online with an open invitation to all Jews visiting the area. The dream that Ralf Pinto harboured all those years ago, will finally be realised.

    Last updated: 11:40am, November 7 2011