The last time you were in Lisbon, you might have noticed hearing some Hebrew.
There’s an influx of Israelis in Portugal, many of who have taken advantage of the 2005 legislation allowing people to get a Portuguese passport through Sephardic heritage to enjoy the great wine, food, and lifestyle of this culinary heaven.
Jewish Portuguese culture has a history that predates the (now finished) Passport laws allowing Sephardic Jews to get Portuguese passports, however. There has been a Jewish presence in the region since before the Roman Empire, and while that presence has involved good times, times of persecution, and times of expulsion, today Portugal is a welcoming place for Jewish people.
During the early Middle Ages, the Jewish community thrived. During the Inquisition, 120,000 Spanish Jews fled to Portugal and then were later expelled themselves. Jewish heritage in Portugal and Jewish culture survived in crypto-Jewish communities, but the once thriving community had been decimated and spread out to places like Turkey, Morocco, London, and Amsterdam.
In the 19th century, however, Moroccan Jews and Jews from Russia, Germany and Poland arrived to start communities in Porto and Lisbon.
Portuguese Jewish culture is not at the same height as its Medieval heyday but is now home to a growing community of Jews. The majority of the community is Sephardic from places like Greece, Bulgaria, Macedonia, and the former Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria. There are also many from Turkey, Syria, Morocco, Algeria, Lebanon, Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya.
Now, Portugal has a strong Jewish infrastructure, including Kosher restaurants, a mikveh, and museums. Portuguese Jewish culture is growing, with hosted festivals, Ladino music concerts, and other Jewish cultural events.
But why, specifically, are so many Israeli Jews moving to Portugal?
A long history of Jewish history in the region
There has been a Jewish presence and Jewish Portuguese culture in Portugal for centuries, and it’s easy to see the influence that remains on the country from its past communities.
Until 1496, 150 Jewish communities existed in Portugal. While many of those have gone, replaced by other communities, hints of their lives remain in religious sites, carvings, place names, and other hints.
For example, Lisbon still has a Judiaria Pequena and Judiaria Grande–two Jewish quarters to explore. The court of the Inquisition is also in Lisbon at the Praca Dom Pedro.
Tomar is home to the oldest existing synagogue in Portugal, and a museum called the Abraham Zacuto Luso- Museo Hebraico in the area holds Judaica and works of art. It’s also the best-preserved medieval synagogue in Portugal.
In Castelo de Vide, Jewish homes from the 15th century can be detected by their whitewashed cottages with distinctive granite, gothic doorways. There’s a synagogue from the 13th century in Castelo de Video that’s been turned into a museum about the town’s Jews.
Portugal is filled with hints and reminders of its long Jewish history which many Israelis can relate to. Sometimes it just takes having the right eye or the right guide to show you where they are.
Great food and wine
Israelis love good food and wine and come from a diverse culinary culture in Israel, but in Portugal, there is an even wider variety of food and great wine available in this culinary heaven.
While often overshadowed by the illustrious food culture of its neighbor, Spain, Portugal has more than enough of its own culinary culture to hold its own.
The sea defines Portugal’s food culture, but there’s more to the region than just seafood. There are also delicious egg tarts, Michelin-starred restaurants, and iconic street food.
There’s a cuisine renaissance in Portugal happening, led by Michelin-star chefs, but there are also the more traditional, casual dining options and street-food options.
In Alentejo, the cuisine centers around lamb, pork, and bread. Much of Portuguese food has Mediterranean foundations, so some of it might even feel familiar to many Israelis. Because Portugal was so influenced by the age of exploration, however, their food is also influenced by Brazilian, African, and flavors they gained from the Spice Route.
Some of the most famous foods are bacalhau or salted cod. Some say there are at least 1,000 recipes in Portugal to prepare the dish, but the trick is soaking it in water to remove the salt. It’s often used in casseroles, as a fillet, grilled, in rice, or simply shredded with onions, fried potatoes, and eggs.
One of the best places to eat Bacalao is Solar do Bacalhau in Coimbra.
There’s also, of course, the pastel de nata–a Portuguese egg tart that’s pretty inexpensive to get in the country. It’s a flaky pastry shell holding a creamy egg custard, often with cinnamon and sugar sprinkled on top.
There are plenty of pork and lamb dishes in Portugal, but Arroz de Pata, or duck rice, is a mix of shredded duck with rice, onions, and garlic that’s one of the most nourishing foods to get in the Alentejo region, where many Israelis live.
There are plenty of other delicious Portuguese foods, like grilled sardines, the famous sauce-covered Francesinha sandwich, seafood rice, and a wide variety of Portuguese cheeses.
Portuguese food is marked by tradition, flavor, and the land that it comes from. There’s no better way to explore this culinary heaven than to eat, and Israelis moving to Portugal love its diverse food scene!
Opportunities for alternative communities
Porto’s Jewish community is known for something a bit different than just typical Jewish heritage and culture. Many members are part of farmsteads where they engage in practices like alternative therapies, ecology, organic farming, and sweat lodges.
Portugal has provided a welcome space for many Israelis to come and live different ways of life.
The land is a lot cheaper in Portugal compared with many European countries and Israel, which makes it easier for Israelis to start the farms or homesteads of their dreams. Tools to cultivate the land are cheaper than in Israel and more widely available.
And this is nothing new–Tamera is an established alternative community in Southern Portugal that was founded in 1995. They host workshops and other activities and welcome many tourists and visitors throughout the year.
A growing Jewish community
In 2011 there were around 600-1,000 Jewish people in Portugal. However, since 2015 when it became easier to get Portuguese citizenship for Sephardic Jewish descendants, the community grew, and in 2017 there were 1,800 Jews in Portugal. Now, there are estimated to be around 6,000 Jews in Portugal, although it’s hard to get a completely accurate number.
The community is equally divided between Ashkenazi Jews and Sephardic Jews, although many follow Sephardic customs. There is an umbrella group that unites Jewish organizations. There’s also a Chabad Lubavitch in Lisbon and a Conservative Synagogue. For members of the Portugal community, there’s a mikveh, prayer room, school, kosher communal kitchen and dining room, and library.
Kosher food is available in several parts of the country, including Lisbon, Oporto, and Belmonte.
Portugal is very safe
Portugal is the 3rd safest country in the world according to the World Population Review and its 4th most peaceful country in the world according to the Global Peace Index.
Crime rates are also extremely low, and as crime goes down, quality of life obviously goes up.
Plenty of Israelis come to Portugal for a stress-free life. That includes the hustle and bustle of daily life, but also the low crime rates and peaceful nature of the country mean that stress is a rare emotion.
Portugal’s tax system makes it easy for new immigrants
Many Israelis move to Portugal because the country makes it financially alluring for new immigrants.
New immigrants to Portugal can take advantage of something called the “Non-Habitual Residency” tax system in Portugal after 183 days of residency.
This system includes a personal income tax treatment over a 10-year period, tax exemptions of income from a foreign source, and a 20% flat rate for certain Portuguese source incomes.
The natural world of Portugal is hard to beat
Portugal is home to a beautiful ocean and some of the most spectacular landscapes in Europe. Clear nights and bright stars dot the sky in this seemingly untouched location.
The weather is also familiar for Israelis, which makes moving an easy transition. The Atlantic oceans and the weather in the South make it a beautiful and comfortable place to be.
It’s easy for Israelis to go from Israel to Portugal
Israelis don’t have to sacrifice time with family to move to Portugal. There are direct flights between Tel Aviv and Lisbon, and many are under $300.
Not only that, Portugal is cheaper to live in than Spain or Israel (and is a nice place for family members to come visit).
It’s easier for people with European passports to come to Portugal
If someone has an EU passport, it’s pretty easy for them to move to Portugal and even buy a property. Not only that, but in years past there were programs that allowed Sephardic Jews to easily obtain Portuguese passports. They have now been halted, but when Israelis were able to get Portuguese passports, it was a huge motivator to come to Portugal and the EU in general.
Portugal offers a lot for new immigrants–ocean views, delicious seafood, and stress-free lifestyles. Many Israelis have moved to Portugal to pursue their dreams of alternative living in an affordable and nearby location.
If you’re still curious about what’s pushing so many Israelis to move to Portugal, you could look into taking a trip to Portugal with our Jewish Heritage Travel Agency.