The Republic of Cape Verde is an archipelago of 10 islands about 300 miles off the coast of Senegal, West Africa. After more than 500 years of Portuguese colonial rule, Cape Verde is predominantly Catholic. However, beginning with the period of the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisition through the late 19th century, Cape Verde received Jews fleeing religious persecution or seeking greater economic stability.
These families landed primarily on the islands of Santo Antao, Sao Vicente, Boa Vista, and Sao Tiago and engaged primarily in international commerce, shipping, administration. The Jews lived, worked, and prospered in Cape Verde. However, because they were few relative to the larger Catholic population, widespread intermarriage occurred. As a result of this assimilation, Cape Verde now has virtually no practicing Jews. Yet, their descendants, whether in Cape Verde, the United States, Portugal or Canada, speak with pride of their Jewish ancestry. They wish to honor the memory of their forebears by preserving the cemeteries and by documenting their legacy.
The Cape Verde Jewish Heritage Project, Inc began as far back as 1995, but it had a different name: “Jews of Cape Verde: Preservation of Memory.” Essentially it was a subsidiary or American partner to AMICAEL, but without firm legal status. Subsequently, B’nai B’rith International based in Washington, DC provided a nonprofit, 501(C) 3 ‘umbrella’ for the project and set aside a line-item in the budget for contributions. However, this association was short-lived and was eventually was terminated. In 2006, I had the good fortune of meeting a benevolent lawyer, Richard Popkin, who was involved in Jewish cemetery restoration in Cuba. He generously offered to create a private foundation entitled “Cape Verde Jewish Heritage Project,” and to apply for nonprofit tax exempt 501(C) 3 status from the IRS which we obtained in December 2007. However, I was constantly inspired by people along the way, notably by Mr. Isaac Bitton, a Portuguese Jew who lived in Woodstock, Illinois. He succeeded in successfully raising funds to restore the Jewish cemetery in Faro, Portugal, the site of a large, mostly Moroccan Jewish community—not unlike that of Cape Verde. He was the one who told me of the importance of creating a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization and of mobilizing the help important political figures. Thanks to his inspiration and counsel, I hope to emulate his good works. Sadly, he passed away last year.
WHAT TYPE OF ENDORSEMENTS DOES YOUR ORGANIZATION HAVE TODAY?
First and foremost, the government of the Republic of Cape Verde has endorsed the project at the highest levels. We have an eloquent letter from Prime Minister Jose Maria Neves. His predecessor, Carlos Alberto Wahnon de Carvalho Veiga, who is of Jewish descent, also endorsed the Project. Mr. Andre Azoulay, counselor to King Mohammed VI of Morocco, has also endorsed CVJHP. We enjoy strong support from B’nai B’rith International as well as from the American Jewish Committee and the American Sephardi Federation of New York.
WHAT ARE YOUR GOALS FOR THE FUTURE OF YOUR ORGANIZATION?
To physically restore, preserve, and maintain the small Jewish cemeteries; to publish several articles, pamphlets, and books about the contribution of the Jews to Cape Verdean society based on the memories of the descendants and archival research; and to encourage Jewish heritage tourism to the islands.
The Jews of Cape Verde By Louise Werlin (Editor’s note: The author is a country development officer with the Agency for International Development’s Office of Sahel and West African Affairs.)
An archipelago of ten islands about 300 miles off the coast of Senegal, West Africa. After over 500 years of Portuguese colonial rule it is predominantly Catholic. Jews settling there were fleeing religious persecution.
As they were few relative to the larger Catholic population, widespread intermarriage occurred so that today there are no practicing Jews though their descendants speak with pride of their Jewish ancestry. They now wish to honor their memory by preserving the cemeteries and documenting their legacy.