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Recife Synagogue – Kahal Zur Israel

The Kahal Zur Israel Synagogue (or Congregation of the Rock of Israel) represents one of the most important landmarks of the Jewish presence in colony Brazil.

Recife Synagogue – Kahal Zur Israel

Article available in: PT-BR ESP

Last update: 20/03/2020

By: Semira Adler Vainsencher - N/I

The Kahal Zur Israel Synagogue (or Congregation of the Rock of Israel) represents one of the most important landmarks of the Jewish presence in colony Brazil. It is located in the current Bom Jesus Street, formerly known as Rua dos Judeus [Jewish Street], in the neighbourhood of Recife, and represented (from 1636 to 1654) the first official synagogue of the Jews who inhabited the Americas.

The front of the synagogue was on the Jewish Street (Bockestraet) and two religious schools (Talmud Torah and Et Hayim) were attached. After the expulsion of the Dutch, that street became known as Rua da Cruz, and the buildings of the old temple and religious schools received the number 26. Only from 1879, however, did the street gain its current name of Rua do Bom Jesus (Kaufman, 2000). his name marked the return of Portuguese colonial domination. At the beginning of colonisation, far from the auto-de-fe, the Lusos interpreted with a little more liberality the severe religious laws present in Portugal. Being persecuted by the inquisitors in Portugal and Spain, the New Christians took refuge in Lusitanian America, where religious fanaticism was less, both for the relaxation of customs and for the need to protect colonisation. Despite this relative liberality, however, the Inquisition did not follow a straight line, always displaying marches and counter-marches. In this way, it never ceased to extend his eyes and claws to the Brazilian Hebrew colony, having sent more than 500 people to Portugal (Moura, 2002).

Jews unconverted to Catholicism had their property confiscated and/or received the death sentence at the stake for treason, heresy, witchcraft, or impurity of blood. In Bahia and Pernambuco, in this sense, in 1591 and 1618, there were two visits by the Court of the Holy Office.

It is important to remember that many Portuguese colonisers who came to Brazil at the beginning of the 16th century, that is, countless banished Portuguese, were simply new Christians or Marranos (the Jews who were forcibly converted to Catholicism but practiced the Mosaic religion in secret), expelled from Portugal.

According to Gonçalves de Mello (1979), the offices and occupations of Jewish and newly converted emigrants varied widely: they were doctors, lawyers, calligraphers, musicians, goldsmiths, ceramists, official interpreters, translators, mill owners, actors, ship loaders, slaves traders, merchants of fabrics, clothes, sugar, food, wine, wood, and others.

Not being able to refuse workers, due to their scarcity, the grantees extended to the people of Jewish origin even the favours granted to the others; one of the grantees, Duarte Coelho, hired laborious Hebrews to construct the sugar mills in Pernambuco, where they were dedicated to the cultivation of sugarcane and to the production and export of sugar. Therefore, it is necessary to acknowledge the Jewish-Marrano influence in the historical formation of the Brazilian people.

Due to the religious tolerance of the Dutch concerning the practice of Mosaic law, a select number of European Jews came to settle in Brazil. The Kahal Zur Israel Synagogue, therefore, only flourished during the period of the Dutch dominion in Pernambuco, from 1630 to 1654. The initial formation of the temple counted on 180 associates, represented by the parents of the Jewish families residing in Recife.

The Jewish community gathered before that time in the Maguen Abraham synagogue, on what was Antônio Vaz Island and later Mauritius (because the bridge linking Mauritius to Recife had not yet been built), and in small Congregations in Itamaracá and Paraíba. Unfortunately, to this day it is not known where this synagogue worked.

The exponents of the Kahal Zur Israel synagogue were the rabbi and first Jewish writer of the Americas, Isaac Aboab da Fonseca; Ochacham (wise) Moses Raphael Aguilar; Ruby (elementary school teacher) Samuel Frazão; The shochek (butcherer for Jewish ritual slaughter) Benjamin Levy; And the shamash (school master) Isaac Nahamias.

It is worth noting that Isaac Aboab da Fonseca was born a New Christian in 1605 by virtue of the baptism of his parents. To freely profess the Mosaic religion, his family emigrated to Amsterdam, where Isaac became a rabbi. He came to Recife in 1642, at the invitation of the Jewish community of Pernambuco, earning a salary of 1,600 florins, accompanied by the chasan (liturgical singer of the synagogue) Moses Rafael de Aguillar. Before 1636, the Jewish community used the house of David Sênior Coronel as a synagogue in Rua dos Judeus.

With the expulsion of the Dutch, the synagogues were closed and the following of Mosaic laws was strictly prohibited. The Jews were left, then, with a unique alternative to maintain their religious identity: performing their ceremonies within the own houses. To ensure security and life itself, conversion to Catholicism seemed to be the best way out.

In this respect, it is worth mentioning the trajectory of Izaque de Castro, a Dutch Jew who left Amsterdam in the 17th century and came to settle in Recife. Accused of converting to Judaism, he was transported in irons to Lisbon. Without ever giving up professing the Mosaic religion (always saying he had a good belief and could not depart from the laws of Moses), Izaque de Castro, at the age of twenty-one, received the maximum sentence from the Court of the Holy Office: to be burned alive at the stake.

In 1656, the building of the Kahal Zur Israel synagogue was entrusted to the insurgent João Fernandes Vieira. In 1679, he and his wife donated the property to the priests of the Congregation of the Oratory of Santo Amaro. In Rua do Bom Jesus, until very recently, a commercial shop of electrical material operated in that building.

Although the Kahal Zur Israel synagogue had been hidden under many floors for centuries, the research of the Archaeological, Historical and Geographical Institute of Pernambuco, and in particular those of the historian José Antônio Gonsalves de Mello, ensured the existence of the temple. On the other hand, cartographic and documentary studies by architect José Luiz da Mota Menezes, indicated the exact place for the beginning of the archaeological excavations.

In 1997, the Ministry of Culture in partnership with the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), developed the Monumenta Program: an archaeological project aimed at restoring and preserving the historic centre of Recife. Included in this program were the excavation and restoration of the Kahal Zur Israel synagogue, whose ruins and vestiges must have been under the floor in a certain building on Rua do Bom Jesus.
Through the efforts of several entities, an agreement was signed between the Ministry of Culture, the Recife City Council, the Israeli Federation of Pernambuco, the Israeli Confederation of Brazil and the Safra Cultural Foundation. It is worth mentioning, however, that this foundation financed the research and restoration works of the synagogue.

In order to locate (as well as determine) the dependencies of the first Jewish temple in the Western Hemisphere, it was necessary to remove 750 tons of earth and more than 1000 square metres of plaster. Throughout the centuries, the foundation of the building had undergone several modifications, due to the diverse reclamations undertaken for the settlement of the city of Recife. Through the excavations, there were 8 different levels of flooring, and the restoration works were under the responsibility of the architect José Luiz da Mota Menezes.

Only in December 2001 could the synagogue be open to the public. The temple furniture, on the other hand, was designed based on research carried out in some 17th century Dutch synagogues. The arrangement of the furniture in the room was also made through the same academic procedure.
During the excavations, precious archaeological material was found: many fragments of Dutch pipes, a piece of crockery with a menorah, a seven-pointed Jewish candelabra, and a few pieces of pottery, enamelled clay dishes brought by the Portuguese settlers.

On the ground floor of the synagogue, people can enjoy permanent exhibitions on Jewish culture and the history of the Hebrew community in Pernambuco, learn how the archaeological excavations were undertaken, observe the original Dutch floor, the various layers of the walls, and the Beberibe River containment wall. On the ground floor there is also one of the most important foundations of the temple: the Mikveh.

Such a hole made of stones on stones, without the presence of mortar, measuring 0.70m in diameter by 1.70m deep, represented the greatest of all discoveries. Without this kind of bathtub, which was fed in the 17th century by a water table of clear and fluent water, the Jews would not have had the opportunity to purify themselves before God in various situations. The Mikveh was examined by a Rabbinical Council, made up of rabbis from Brazil and Argentina, and only after a rigorous inspection was its authenticity proven within the measures specified in the sacred scriptures.

To get an idea of the importance of Mikveh in a Jewish community, suffice it to say that women can only have sex after the end of the menstrual period. As the blood flow of menstruation is considered as an impure element, the Jews, after this period, have to undergo a certain ritual of purification, and this occurs through a bath in the Mikveh.

On the second floor – the cloister – there is a prayer room. This space was destined to hold conferences and seminars on Jewish culture. The layout, format, and material of the synagogue ceiling were the fruit of research carried out in Portuguese and Spanish synagogues of the 17th century and in Dutch residences in Pernambuco.

Located on the top floor of the temple, the Documentation Centre congregates the cultural activities destined to the preservation of the Jewish memory, in Pernambuco and in the country. The building of the synagogue, because it was considered an important element of the Brazilian historical memory, was inscribed in the Book of Listed Buildings of the Institute of National Historical and Artistic Patrimony.

The ark that contains the Torah (name given to the Mosaic law and the Pentateuch) is in front of the pulpit and this faces the east. The mezzanine is divided into two parts. In the first (it is assumed) is the place from which the women, sitting in benches, followed the religious ceremonies; and in the second part is the Documentation Centre of the Jewish Memory of Pernambuco.

Recife, 1 August 2003.
Translated by Peter Leamy, December 2016.

sources consulted

KAHAL Zur Israel: Congregação Rochedo de Israel: resgate da memória da 1a. Sinagoga das Américas. Recife: Fundação Safra/Centro Cultural Judaico de Pernambuco, 2001.

KAUFMAN, Tânia Neumann. Passos perdidos – História recuperada: a presença judaica em Pernambuco. Recife: Edição do Autor, 2000.

LARGMAN, Esther Regina. Judeus nos trópicos: a comunidade judaica da Bahia de 1912 a 1945. Morashá, São Paulo,a. 10, n. 36, p.49-53, mar. 2002.

______. Aspectos da vida judaica ...sob o domínio holandês. Morashá. São Paulo, a. 11, n. 40, p.59-62, abr. 2003.

LIPINER, Elias. Izaque de Castro: o mancebo que veio preso do Brasil. Recife: Fundação Joaquim Nabuco; Ed. Massangana, 1992.

MELLO, José Antônio Gonsalves de. Gente da Nação. Revista do Instituto Arqueológico, Histórico e Geográfico Pernambucano, Recife, v. 51, 1979.

MOURA, Hélio Augusto de. Presença judaico-marrana durante a colonização do Brasil. Cadernos de Estudos Sociais, Recife, v. 18, n. 2, p.267-292, jul./dez. 2002.

RIBEMBOIM, José Alexandre. Senhores de engenho: judeus em Pernambuco colonial (1542-1654). Recife: 20-20 Comunicação e Editora, 1998.

how to quote this text

Source: Fonte: VAINSENCHER, Semira Adler. Snagoga do Recife - Kahal Zur Israel.  Pesquisa Escolar Online, Fundação Joaquim Nabuco, Recife. Disponível em: <>. Acesso em: dia  mês ano. Ex: 6 ago. 2009.