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Few women in Jewish history, particularly in the Middle Ages, played such an inspiring and beneficial role, as did the noble Doña Gracia.

The legends woven around this extraordinary woman are numerous – but her deeds speak louder than her legends. Many thousands of Marranos and other persecuted Jews, who she saved from death, called her “Our Angel”. She was a Portuguese aristocrat who lost her husband when she was only 27. Many of her relatives fell victim to Christian oppression and the Spanish Inquisition.

Rising above her losses, she took over her husband’s financial empire. Her gift was that she was expert at navigating both the twin worlds of finance and politics – and between being a Jew in private, and a Christian in public. At the same time she remained a loving mother and a generous patron to her people..

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Doña Gracia was a woman of extraordinary beauty, culture and wealth. She was highly respected by the kings and influential nobleman of Europe – and was a friend, financier, and advisor to the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. In private, she funded synagogues, hospitals, and yeshivas..

In 1556 she went up against the Pope of Rome to save the Marrano Jews in Ancona, Italy. She financed the siege of Ancona after 26 Jews died at the stake, rather than denying their Judaism. As a Marrano, she finally rejected the Christian faith that had been forced upon her – and publicly declared herself the proud religious Jewish woman she really was.

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A woman of great spirituality and vision, she generously supported the leading Torah Scholars in Constantinople, Salonika, Safed and Tiberius – the main, 16th century Sephardic centers of Jewish learning in the Ottoman Empire. Through her caring patronage, the great Rabbi Yosef Karo completed and printed his definitive work on Jewish law The Shulchan Aruch – a work that is still extensively used by Torah Scholars today.

Acutely aware of the centrality of Returning to Zion to the Jewish People, she funded the re-building of Tiberius as a haven for her fellow Jews in Israel. Pre-dating Theodore Herzl by 450 years, she was one of the first Jews, in our long exile, to successfully help Jews return to their ancient homeland.

A Portuguese poem, dedicated to her in her lifetime, eloquently said;
Wise – with her golden arm and heavenly grasp, she raises people from the depths of … infinite travail… in Europe… She brings them to safe lands and does not cease to guide them and gather them – to the obedience and precepts of their God of old.

Doña Gracia is an inspiration to every one of us. She was a woman who dared to claim her rightful place in a world of prejudice and intolerance – while remaining true to herself.