Portuguese Synagogue, Amsterdam
Dating from 1665, the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam is a large and elegant building that testifies to the tradition of religious freedom in the Netherlands.
Sephardic Jews fleeing Spain and Portugal during the persecutions of the 16th and early 17th centuries settled in an eastern Amsterdam neighborhood that became known as the Jewish Quarter. In light of the ongoing conflict between the Dutch Republic and Spain, the community referred to themselves as “Portuguese Jews.”
In the early 17th century, there were three Sephardic communities in Amsterdam: Beth Jacob (founded as early as 1602); Neve Shalom (1608-12); and Beth Israel (1618). In 1639, the three communities merged to form Talmud Torah, or the Portuguese Jewish Community of Amsterdam, which still exists today.
In 1665, the Portuguese Jewish Community commissioned the Portugees-Israëlietische Synagoge, an elegant brick structure within an existing courtyard. Construction took place from 1671 to 1675 under Elias Bouwman and Danield Stalpaert.
The total cost of the building was 186,000 florins, a princely sum. When completed, the Portuguese Synagogue was the largest synagogue in the world.
The synagogue was restored in the 1850s and 1950s, but has been well-preserved in its original form.
Miraculously, the synagogue survived the Nazi invasion in 1940 unscathed. It is still not known why it was left intact when virtually all other synagogues were destroyed. Before the Nazis occupied Holland, 120,000 Jews lived in Amsterdam, around 2,300 of which were Sephardi Jews. After the war, only 20,000 Jews were left in all of the Netherlands, including just 800 Sephardi.
Today, there are 15-20,000 Jews living in Amsterdam and the Portuguese Jewish Community has around 600 contributing members.
What to See
The exterior of the brick synagogue faces a busy traffic circle on one side and a square courtyard of brick houses on the other. The courtyard is a popular place for children to play and adults to socialize. The houses now contain the Ets Haim (“Tree of Life”) library – one of the oldest in the world – the winter synagogue, a mortuary, the rabbinate, offices and archives.
The gilded Hebrew inscription over the entrance records the date 1672, when the synagogue was due to be completed, and a verse from Psalm 5:8: “In the abundance of Thy lovingkindness will I come into Thy house.”
Inside, the synagogue is designed in the Sephardi style, with the beautiful wooden Ark (1744) and bimah at opposite ends of the interior. The seating (on benches from a synagogue built in 1639) is arranged in two equal halves, which face each other across a central aisle. The floor is covered with fine sand to absorb moisture from shoes and muffle noise.
The women’s gallery is supported by 12 stone columns to represent the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Two large brass chandeliers hold a total of 1,000 candles, all of which are lit during worship services.
Names: Portugees-Israëlietische Synagoge; Esnoga; Portuguese Synagogue
Address: Mr. Visserplein 3, Amsterdam, Netherlands
Location: Waterlooplein on the east side of the city
Tram: Tram: 9 or 14 to Mr. Visserplein
Hours: Apr-Oct: Sun-Fri 10am-6pm
Nov-Mar: Sun-Thu 10am-6pm, Fri 10am-3pm
Closed Jewish holidays.
Cost: €5 adults, €4 children 10-15, under 10 free
Services: See General Service Calendar