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Chabad Portugal marks five years

When the need arises for a Chabad outpost in the last European country without one, a West Hartford woman answers the call

By Cindy Mindell

When Eliyohu Rosenfeld and Raizel Gopin first met nearly 10 years ago, they shared a common wish: to establish a Chabad house somewhere in the world. They considered Connecticut, where Gopin grew up as the daughter of Rabbi Joseph and Miriam Gopin, founders of Chabad of Greater Hartford. Then they hit upon another idea – Portugal.

Rosenfeld had spent three summers as a traveling Chabad yeshiva student in small Jewish communities that lacked rabbis. On his third mission, he was paired with a Brazilian yeshiva student – his chavrusa or study partner – and sent to Portugal. The following summer, Chabad dispatched him again to Portugal, this time without his chavrusa, who had gotten married.

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Lunch & Learn class with Rabbi Rosenfeld (far left) in Portugal.

Rosenfeld and Gopin were married in 2008 and settled in Brooklyn. By then, there was a rabbi (though not a Chabad rabbi) serving the Jewish communities in Portugal, and the couple put their relocation plans on the back burner. Rosenfeld kept in contact with many of the Portuguese Jews he had gotten to know during his summer stints, and took his new wife there on a visit. In 2010, when Chabad decided to send representatives to the last European country without an outpost, the Rosenfelds volunteered.

That year, they packed up their two children – Mushka, 1½ and Mendel, 3 months – and moved to an apartment in Lisbon. Since then, they have expanded Chabad’s presence in the capital city and nearby suburb of Cascais, as well as in Porto and Belmonte to the north and in the southern region of Algarve.

Each Portuguese Jewish community has its own unique makeup, according to Raizel. Lisbon is home to the largest and longest-established population, officially recognized in 1913, with many members tracing their roots back to before the Inquisition. Cascais is popular with young families, while Algarve and Porto attract Jewish ex-pats from around the world, and Belmonte comprises descendants of crypto-Jews.

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Chabad Portugal Summer Camp in Cascais.

When the Rosenfelds don’t travel to the Jewish communities north and south of Lisbon, they send fellow Chabad couples or yeshiva students to run services and holiday programs. This Passover, they will run a seder in Cascais and recruit Raizel’s brother, Dov, and his yeshiva chavrusa to conduct a second one in Lisbon.

While it was relatively simple to set up the Chabad house, the number-one challenge for the Rosenfelds has been providing a Jewish education for their four children. Because there is no Jewish school yet in Portugal, the couple “imports” teachers, both for their own family and for the two Hebrew schools they set up in Lisbon and Cascais. The Rosenfelds try to spend a month every year in the U.S. so that their kids can get a taste of “real” Jewish day school, Raizel says.

Since January, when the Portuguese government ratified a law of return for descendants of Jews expelled from the country during the Inquisition, the Chabad house has received many calls from people interested in pursuing citizenship rights. The Rosenfelds refer the inquiries to the Jewish communities in Lisbon and Porto, whose leadership is involved in helping people navigate the application process.

The new law is just one sign that the country is becoming friendlier toward Jews. Last year, Chanukah in Portugal burned more brightly when the Rosenfelds were planning their fourth annual public menorah lighting in Lisbon.

“We were thinking of starting a second one in Cascais, but it was getting close to the holiday and we thought we should postpone the lighting to the following year,” Raizel recalls. “My husband arranged a meeting with the mayor of Cascais, who is a friend of ours, to tell him the plan. The mayor said, ‘Next Chanukah? Let’s do it this Chanukah.’ It’s just amazing how welcoming people are here: 500 years ago, there was the Inquisition, and they’re the ones who are now welcoming us and helping us and encouraging us to do the work that we’re doing.”

CAP: Chanukah candle-lighting in Libson. (Rabbi Eliyohu Rosenfeld is pictured on the far left.)

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