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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Ceaser

A Brief History of the Portuguese Synagogue of Amsterdam

What is the Portuguese Synagogue?

The Portuguese Synagogue of Amsterdam is one of the oldest active synagogues in Europe, it dates back to the 17th century and today holds regular services and candlelight concerts.

Portuguese Synagogue Exterior

A.A.W.J. Rietman, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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Portuguese Synagogue History

Here at the heart of the city’s Jewish Cultural Quarter stands the monumental Portuguese Synagogue. Completed in 1675, it’s one of the oldest continuously operating synagogues in Europe, and for a time was also one of the largest on the continent.

The synagogue served Amsterdam’s Sephardic community, made up of descendants of Jews who fled religious persecution on the Iberian Peninsula following the Inquisitions in Spain and Portugal in the 15th and 16th centuries. Many chose to settle in the Dutch Republic because of its relative religious tolerance, which allowed Jews to build synagogues and freely practise their faith. No doubt, the city’s Protestant government also accepted the Sephardim because they were largely wealthy, well-educated merchants and traders who contributed to Amsterdam’s economic pre-eminence during the Dutch Golden Age.

Nowhere else in 17th-century Europe were Jews permitted to build a synagogue complex as big and impressive as this one. It was designed by Dutch architect Elias Bouman, who was not Jewish but who had previously helped build the Grote (or Great) Synagogue, which now forms part of Amsterdam’s Jewish Historical Museum. The massive Portuguese Synagogue complex fills an entire city block, complete with a courtyard and outbuildings around the periphery related to Jewish religious life, including the mikvah (or ritual bath), cantor’s office, and Ets Haim, the world’s oldest functioning Jewish library.

portuguese synagogue interior

Chajm Guski from Germany, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The synagogue is an imposing, rectangular structure, built in red brick and designed in the austere Classical style. The vast interior features soaring stone columns, a barrel-vaulted timber ceiling, wooden pews, and a pine plank floor dusted with sand – a Dutch tradition that helps absorb dirt and muffle sound. Enormous windows flood the space with natural light. In fact, there’s still no electricity in the building hence no heating, and evening services are illuminated by the hundreds of candles in the brass chandeliers – it can take hours to light them all. As the synagogue is closed to the public during services, for a chance to see this spectacle you can attend one of the monthly candlelight concerts.

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