The history of the Jews in Brazil is extensive, particularly in the State of Pernambuco. Their presence on this soil dates back to the first years of the discovery of Brazil. With Cabral's fleet came Gaspar da Gama, Polish Jew travelling from India, who served as an interpreter for the troops. The importance of the Jewish community during the so-called Portuguese-Brazil and the Dutch-Brazil periods was far greater than what has been written down in the country's official history. The restoration of the building that housed the first synagogue in the Americas has filled the historical gap and contributed to a broader recognition to the sheer plurality of Brazil's roots. Jews were here well before the country came to be known as Brazil, but were forgotten.
The formation of a Jewish community in Pernambuco State occurred effectively in the first half of the 17th century, thanks to the religious freedom under the Dutch government, headed by João Maurício de Nassau. During Nassau's secure seven-year reign (1637-44), there was continuous Jewish migration. Besides the main motivation, which was religious, there was also an economic reason for immigration, as sepharadic Portuguese Jews who settled in Amsterdam had strong commercial ties with Dutch entrepreneurs. With 600 families, Recife's Jewish community was completed with the arrival of the famous religious leader, Rabbi Isaac Aboab da Fonseca, sent by the Amsterdam Congregation. It was then that the Kahal Zur Israel congregation and the construction of the first synagogue in the Americas occurred. At the same time, there was the construction of the Talmud Torah and Etz Hayim religious schools, which were located in multi-level edifices. There was also a Jewish cemetery, outside the city limits, where the suburb of Coelhos is currently located.
With the decline of Dutch rule in 1654, and the reinstatement of the Portuguese regime, Recife's Jewish community had three months to sell off their goods and board any available ship. A small part of this population headed for the Caribbean and North America, where they integrated a place called New Amsterdam, institutionalizing and constituting the first organized Jew community in that region. This place is known today as New York City.
The place where the first synagogue of the Americas was once situated has recently been identified and its structural foundations located under the large houses, numbered 197 through 203, on the street known as Rua do Bom Jesus, previously referred to as Rua dos Judeus (Street of the Jews), in the port region of Recife. The building was demolished at the beginning of the 20th century, being replaced, firstly, by a bank and, later, by a store for electric equipments.
The Mikvah and the archeological findings
Some 750 tons of earth, more than one thousand square meters of plaster were removed to later determine the exact internal layout, identifying the premises and the changes made throughout the centuries in the building where the first synagogue in the Western Hemisphere was situated. Excavations revealed eight different floor levels - corresponding to the successive levels of the city - the foundations of the synagogue and the remains of subsequent changes made to the building. During the diggings, some archeological material was found, including fragments of Dutch pipes, dishware (clay enameled dishes brought by the Portuguese), and other elements that portray the day-to-day life of the city during that period. A hole in the shape of a pool found inside the buildings, where the synagogue was, became the most important discovery during the archeological exavations.
Further works also revealed the structure of a well, made of stones mounted one upon the other, with no mortar, 1.7 meters deep and approximately 70 centimeters in diameter. Two months later, a commission of four rabbis set out for Recife to inspect the site. It was only then that this group of rabbis from Brazil and Argentina confirmed the discovery of the Mikvah-Jewish ritual bath used for purification purpose. According to the rabbis, specialists in the matter, the dimensions are in accordance with Jewish tradition. The rabbis categorically affirm that the Mikvah is the most important aspect of the synagogue and one of the basic foundations of any Jewish community, independent of its location. "It is in the Mikvah that men and women purify themselves before God" - explain.
With restoration comes the recollection of time
Due to its importance to the history of the Jews in the Northeast, the project chosen for the restoration of the buildings where the Kahal Zur Israel Synagogue once stood, endeavored to preserve aesthetic harmony with a historical objective. For this, the archeological elements discovered - which are of great importance - were highlighted, however, without turning this material into an exhibit. The intervention also did not set out to determine the historical period of the building, but to show the various stages of the buildings in question. Today's buildings are the accumulated result of successive modifications.
Due to the lack of definition of some constructed elements, the building was not restored to its original splendor of the 17th century. Despite the intensity of the study, the original layout of the roof and other interior areas could not be discerned, such as the type of ceiling in the prayer room or the wall at the rear. On the other hand, these archeological diggings exposed a rich legacy below the current street level. To leave all of these discoveries buried under the floor or behind plastered walls would not be logical. With this, the main aim is to associate the interest in these archeological findings with the use of the building as a documentation center and a Jewish memorial; simply reconstituting the cultural gap, in order to increase the historical and artistic interest of the locale.