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Rockville Synagogue Hosts Ambassadors to Celebrate Cape Verde’s Jewish Heritage

By Larry Luxner 

At least half a dozen foreign ambassadors descended on Magen David Sephardic Congregation in Rockville, Md., this past weekend to celebrate the Jewish heritage of Cape Verde — despite the fact that not a single Jew today lives in this African island nation of about 540,000 people.

The event, “Moroccan Jews of Cape Verde,” featured a musical performance by Gardenia Benros — known as “a voz da alma caboverdiana” (the soulful voice of Cape Verde). Like many of her fellow citizens, the award-winning singer is a descendant of Sephardic Jews who immigrated to the tropical island chain in the mid-1800s, when it was still a Portuguese colony.


A concrete road sign announces the entrance to Synagog, a town on Santo Antão so named because of the presence of a long-gone synagogue that once served the area’s flourishing Jewish community. (Photo: Larry Luxner)

Over 200 people attended the event, more than organizers had expected. “It’s an important event because Cape Verde officially recognizes that Jewish heritage is part of our identity,” Carlos Veiga, the country’s ambassador to the United States, told the Pouch. “We are very proud of our ancestors, even though we don’t have any practicing Jew today living in Cape Verde.”

Also attending was Portuguese Ambassador Domingos Fezas Vital as well as the Washington-based ambassadors of Angola, Mozambique, Timor-Leste and Togo. Brazilian diplomat Rubens Campana as well as Reuven Azar, deputy chief of mission at the Israeli Embassy, were also on hand, as were officials from the Moroccan Embassy.

Veiga, whose maternal grandfather — James Wahnon — was a Jew from Gibraltar, made a short presentation along with Carol Castiel, president of the Cape Verde Jewish Heritage Project (CVJHP), which recently succeeded in getting several Jewish cemeteries and other sites declared as “national historical and cultural patrimony.”


Inocêncio Fernandes Xavier Moniz cleans the Hebrew letters of a 19th-century Jewish tombstone in Praia’s predominantly Catholic cemetery of Varzia. (Photo: Larry Luxner)

The Washington-based nonprofit group is currently working on signage for two Jewish cemeteries — Ponta da Sol and Penha de França — located on the island of Santo Antão, one of 10 islands located in the Atlantic Ocean, roughly 300 miles west of Senegal.

The mixed-race, predominantly Catholic nation also has two other Jewish cemeteries: one on the desert island of Boa Vista, which is being developed for tourism, and the fourth within the vast Várzea municipal cemetery in Praia, on the southern coast of the island of Santiago.

“The CVJHP has painstakingly verified the Portuguese and Hebrew inscriptions and translated them into English, so we will have a map of the tombstones in bronze with corresponding English and Portuguese translations to help visitors know what they’re viewing,” Castiel told the Pouch. “All of this represents our yeoman effort to not only preserve and maintain the cemeteries but also to provide proper, dignified and lasting signage to facilitate cultural tourism and serve as a permanent tribute to the memory of the Sephardim buried there.”

The Magen David event was co-sponsored by the Moroccan Embassy as well as the Sally and Irving Korobkin Education Fund. For more information, please contact This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or call the synagogue at (301) 770-6818.

 


Larry Luxner is the news editor for The Washington Diplomat.

 
 

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