Bevis Marks Synagogue in London

Monday, 6 June 2022 - 11:00 am (CET/MEZ) Berlin | Author/Destination:
Category/Kategorie: General, London
Reading Time:  11 minutes

Clock outside the Bevis Marks Synagogue © Ethan Doyle White/cc-by-sa-4.0

Clock outside the Bevis Marks Synagogue © Ethan Doyle White/cc-by-sa-4.0

Bevis Marks Synagogue, officially Qahal Kadosh Sha’ar ha-Shamayim (“Holy Congregation Gate of Heaven”), is the oldest synagogue in the United Kingdom in continuous use. It is located off Bevis Marks, Aldgate, in the City of London. The synagogue was built in 1701 and is affiliated to London’s historic Spanish and Portuguese Jewish community. It is a Grade I listed building. It is the only synagogue in Europe which has held regular services continuously for more than 300 years.

The origins of the community date from an influx to London of crypto-Jews, or so called Marranos, from Spain and Portugal, mostly via the growing Sephardi Jewish community in Amsterdam, in the early seventeenth century. These Jews began practising their religion openly once it became possible to do so through Jewish resettlement in England under the rule of Oliver Cromwell. Services at a small synagogue in Creechurch Lane began in 1657. In 1663, it was visited on the festival of Simchat Torah by the diarist Samuel Pepys, who recorded his impressions of the service. In 1698 Rabbi David Nieto took spiritual charge of the congregation of “Spanish and Portuguese Jews” (Sephardim). A considerable influx of Jews made it necessary to obtain more commodious quarters. Accordingly, a committee was appointed, consisting of António Gomes Serra, Menasseh Mendes, Alfonso Rodrigues, Manuel Nunez Miranda, Andrea Lopez, and Pontaleão Rodriguez. It investigated matters for nearly a year and, on 12 February 1699, signed a contract with Joseph Avis, a Quaker, for the construction of a building to cost £2,650. According to legend, Avis declined to collect his full fee, on the ground that it was wrong to profit from building a house of God. Also unsubstantiated is the story that a timber was donated by the then Princess Anne for the roof of the synagogue. On 24 June 1699, the committee leased from Sir Thomas and Lady Pointz (also known as Littleton) a tract of land at Plough Yard, in Bevis Marks, for 61 years, with the option of renewal for a further 38 years, at £120 a year. The structure was completed and dedicated in September 1701. The interior decor and furnishing and layout of the synagogue reflect the influence of the great Portuguese Synagogue of Amsterdam of 1675. It has been claimed that the design was also influenced by Christopher Wren, the architect of the nearby St Paul’s Cathedral. The roof was destroyed by fire in 1738 and repaired in 1749. During the London Blitz the synagogue’s silver, records and fittings were removed to a place of safety; the synagogue suffered only minor damage. The synagogue suffered some collateral damage from the IRA in 1992 and the 1993 Bishopsgate bombing, but this was restored. The essential original structure of the building thus remains today. In 1747 Benjamin Mendes da Costa bought the lease of the ground on which the building stood, and presented it to the congregation, vesting the deeds in the names of a committee consisting of Gabriel Lopez de Britto, David Aboab Ozorio, Moses Gomes Serra, David Franco, Joseph Jessurun Rodriguez, and Moses Mendes da Costa. The community saw a significant influx of crypto-Jews from Portugal fleeing the inquisition during the seventeenth and eighteenth century. Marriage and circumcision records record couple as “Vindos de Portugal”, or more rarely “Vindos de Espana”, for the purpose of reconsecrating their vows now they were free to practice Judaism openly or undertaking an adult circumcision. Alongside migration from Sephardi centres such as Amsterdam and Livorno there was a steady influx of refugees from Portugal up until around 1735, after which it diminished, with some of the last recorded arrivals from Portugal as late as 1790. Records show arrivals escaping principally from major cities such as Lisbon or Porto and the remote borderland region from Spain, such as from Celerico de Beira, Guarda, Braganza or Belmonte. As a result of this migration the sermon at Bevis Marks took place in Portuguese until as late as 1833 when they switched to English.

A prominent feature of the synagogue is the Renaissance-style ark (containing the Torah scrolls) located at the centre of the Eastern wall of the building. It resembles in design the reredos of the churches of the same period. Painted to look as though it is made of coloured Italian marble, it is in fact made entirely of oak. The architectural critic Ian Nairn in his book Nairn’s London described the synagogue as defined by a “great luminous room, compassionate light streaming in through big clear glass windows.” Seven hanging brass candelabra symbolise the seven days of the week, the largest of which – hanging in the centre of the synagogue – represents the Sabbath. This central candelabrum was donated by the community of the Great Synagogue of Amsterdam. The candles are still lit today for weddings and the Jewish Festivals. The rest of the year the Synagogue is lit by the electric lights added in 1928. The ner tamid (sanctuary lamp) is of silver and dates from 1876. Twelve pillars, symbolising the twelve tribes of Israel, support the women’s gallery. The synagogue contains benches running parallel to the side walls and facing inward, leaving two aisles for the procession with the Torah scrolls. In addition, backless benches at the rear of the synagogue, taken from the original synagogue at Creechurch Lane, date from 1657 and are still regularly used. A number of seats in the synagogue are roped off as they belong or have belonged to notable people within the community. Two seats were reserved for the most senior officials of the congregation’s publishing arm, Heshaim. A third seat, fitted with a footstool, (the seat nearest the Ark on the central row of the left half of the benches) is also withheld as it belonged to Moses Montefiore. It is now only ever occupied by very senior dignitaries as a particular honour. In 2001 Prince Charles used the seat during the synagogue’s tercentenary service. Prime Minister Tony Blair used it for the service celebrating the 350th anniversary of the re-settlement of the Jews in Great Britain in 2006, when the Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogue Sir Jonathan Sacks and the Lord Mayor of London were also present. The synagogue retains notable historical records, including community circumcision and marriage records dating back to 1679.

© geograph.org.uk - John Salmon/cc-by-sa-2.0 Clock outside the Bevis Marks Synagogue © Ethan Doyle White/cc-by-sa-4.0 Entrance to Bevis Marks Synagogue © geograph.org.uk - John Salmon/cc-by-sa-2.0 War Memorial on the Side of the Bevis Marks Synagogue © Ethan Doyle White/cc-by-sa-4.0 © Deror avi © Edwardx/cc-by-sa-3.0
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War Memorial on the Side of the Bevis Marks Synagogue © Ethan Doyle White/cc-by-sa-4.0
On Friday 13 November 1998, Peter, Lord Levene of Portsoken, became the eighth Jewish Lord Mayor of London. An Ashkenazi Jew by birth, Lord Levene’s first public act was to walk, with a retinue, from his official residence (Mansion House) to Bevis Marks Synagogue, for the Sabbath Eve service. This was repeated on Friday 12 November 2010 by the then Lord Mayor Michael Bear. Today the Spanish and Portuguese descendant community in London operates three synagogues: Bevis Marks; Lauderdale Road (which is the community’s administrative headquarters); and a smaller synagogue in Wembley. The community’s sheltered housing scheme “Harris Court” and old-age home “Edinburgh House” are also located in Wembley. A number of other Sephardic synagogues in Britain have associated status. Bevis Marks Synagogue remains the flagship synagogue of the British Sephardic Jewish community. Daily services are held and the synagogue is frequently a venue for weddings and other celebrations. As of 2020 the rabbi of Bevis Marks is Shalom Morris, an American of Ashkenazi descent. He is a great-grandson of Rabbi Eliezer Silver. Prince Charles is a patron of the synagogue heading a 2019 conservation appeal for funds to turn it into a heritage centre. It is a Grade 1 listed historic monument. In 2018, the synagogue rescinded its objections to a proposed development after the architects amended the plans and the developers made a donation to the synagogue. The Jewish Chronicle reported that some congregants were unhappy with decision and felt the leadership had lacked ethics.

In September 2021, it emerged that developers planned to build 21-storey and 48-storey buildings right next to the synagogue. It is claimed this would block natural light from the building for all but one hour a day. The synagogue is currently only lit by up to 240 candles and some electric lighting which was installed in 1928. A campaign has been launched to block the development with the Corporation of London saying no decision has been made. It is reported to have received 1,500 letters of objection. The alarm was raised by an article in the New York Times ahead of reporting by most of the British press. Members of the London Jewish community took to social media on the eve of Yom Kippur to draw attention to the threat to the synagogue including writer Simon Sebag-Montefiore and journalists Jonathan Freedland and Ben Judah. According to The New York Times, a report commissioned by the developers claims that the building would have no impact on the amount of natural light the synagogue receives.

Read more on sephardi.org.uk – Bevis Marks Synagogue, SaveBevisMarks.org and Wikipedia Bevis Marks Synagogue (Smart Traveler App by U.S. Department of State - Weather report by weather.com - Global Passport Power Rank - Travel Risk Map - Democracy Index - GDP according to IMF, UN, and World Bank - Global Competitiveness Report - Corruption Perceptions Index - Press Freedom Index - World Justice Project - Rule of Law Index - UN Human Development Index - Global Peace Index - Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Index). Photos by Wikimedia Commons. If you have a suggestion, critique, review or comment to this blog entry, we are looking forward to receive your e-mail at comment@wingsch.net. Please name the headline of the blog post to which your e-mail refers to in the subject line.




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