The synagogue was inaugurated in 1637 for a community of Christian converts from the Inquisition and Jews of Portuguese origin who had immigrated from Amsterdam during the Dutch rule of the sugar-rich seaport on Brazil’s northeastern coast.
After the Portuguese defeated the Dutch at Recife in 1654, they expelled the Jews and banned the religion. Some 20 Jews emigrated to New York City, where they started the first Jewish community in the United States.
After two years of excavation and restoration, the synagogue will house a Jewish cultural center and host just a few religious ceremonies.
“The most important issue is the rescue of a chapter in the history of the Jewish people,” said Boris Berenstein, president of the Israelite Federation in the state of Pernambuco which spearheaded the recovery.
Berenstein said documents and maps from the period had led the Jewish community to discover remains of the synagogue in a building which housed a Catholic charity hospital.
In 2000, archeologists unearthed a “mikve,” a spiritual purification bath fed by running rain or river water, used mainly by women.
“We discovered that we had a physical element that was important for Judaism and showed that in this building there was indeed a synagogue ,” Berenstein said.
The recovery of the synagogue cost $500,000 and was paid for by the foundation of the Safra banking family. The project had the support of federal and local governments and the Brazilian Jewish community.
Brazil has the second biggest Jewish community in Latin America after Argentina, with some 200,000 people, most of whom live in Sao Paulo.
Recife, a city of 1.3 million located 1,670 miles (2,700 km) northeast of Sao Paulo, is home today to nearly 500 Jewish families.