Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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First New World Synagogue Rediscovered Volume 55 Number 2, March/April 2002
by Colleen P. Popson

[image] An unearthed mikvah confirmed the location of the Americas' first synagogue. (Courtesy Centro Cultural Judaico de Pernambuco) [LARGER IMAGE]

A Jewish museum and cultural center has been built in Recife, Brazil, on the site of the first synagogue established in the Americas. Founded in 1630, Kahal Zur Israel (Rock of Israel), served the spiritual needs of about 1,400 Dutch Jews. Although the presence of the synagogue was known from maps and records, its exact location was not confirmed until archaeologists, led by Marcos Albuquerque of the Federal University of Pernambuco, excavated at the suspected site in 2000. Digging below eight consecutive floors in a building on Bom Jesus Street--formerly Rua dos Judeus, or Street of the Jews--the excavation team found a mikvah, a Jewish ritual purification bath. A group of rabbis confirmed that the feature was indeed a mikvah and that the site of the synagogue had been discovered.

Kahal Zur Israel flourished in Recife from 1636 until 1654, when the northeastern portion of Brazil fell to the Portuguese. The less tolerant Portuguese expelled the Jews, most of whom went to Suriname or the Caribbean island of Curaçao. A small group settled in New Amsterdam, now New York City, marking the first Jewish presence in North America.

© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America