Preserving the Republic of Cape Verde’s rich but little-known Sephardic Jewish history was the subject of “The Moroccan Jews of Cape Verde,” a program hosted March 10 by Magen David Sephardic Congregation of Rockville, Maryland. The evening featured remarks by the island republic’s Ambassador Carlos Wahnon Veiga, who is of Moroccan Jewish descent, and Carol Castiel, president of the Cape Verde Jewish Heritage Project (CVJHP).
Cape Verde, an archipelago of 10 islands off the coast of Senegal, has an international reputation as one of the most stable democracies in the African continent. Ambassador Veiga was the country’s first democratically-elected prime minister in 1991.
At the event, a musical performance by Gardénia Benrós, a Cape Verdean whose melodies reflect her Moroccan Jewish ancestry, was a highlight of the evening. The program was sponsored by the Embassy of Cape Verde, the Embassy of the Kingdom of Morocco, and the Sally and Irving Korobkin Education Fund.
Diplomats from countries associated with the island’s history, including Portugal and Morocco, were among nearly 200 attendees who learned of the Heritage Project’s central mission, the restoration of decayed and long-forgotten cemeteries.
In the mid-1800s, after the 1821 abolition of the Inquisition in Portugal and after an 1842 treaty between Portugal and Great Britain, Sephardic Jews from Morocco and Gibraltar settled in Cape Verde, then a Portuguese colony. Jews prospered in Cape Verde, but because they were few in number and mostly males, they assimilated over time with the predominantly Catholic population.
As a result, Cape Verde today has virtually no practicing Jews. Nonetheless, the original immigrants took care to bury their dead according to Jewish law. The typical Sephardic headstones bearing Portuguese and Hebrew inscriptions are among the few vestiges of their presence. Descendants of these Jews in Cape Verde and abroad are proud of their Jewish ancestry and wish to honor their forebears by preserving these cemeteries and documenting their legacy.
Founded in 2007, CVJHP is a nonprofit organization that works in close collaboration with the Cape Verdean local and central governments, as well as with Jewish descendants whose forebears immigrated to the archipelago in the mid-19th century. CVJHP’s primary goals are to restore and preserve Judaic burial grounds throughout the archipelago, promote economic development in Cape Verde through Jewish heritage tourism, and document the legacy of Jewish families through the publication of books, pamphlets, and videos.
By Andrea Choobineh
Andrea Choobineh is the executive director of Magen David Sephardic Congregation in Rockville, Maryland.