Meyer Harroch

‘Bevis Marks Synagogue: Three Centuries of Faith, Heritage, and Community’

Bevis Marks Synagogue, New York Jewish Travel Guide

Nestled in the heart of the City of London, just off the ancient thoroughfare of Bevis Marks, stands the Bevis Marks Synagogue, a remarkable symbol of resilience and faith. Established in 1701, it holds the distinction of being the oldest synagogue in the United Kingdom and the first synagogue built after Jews were permitted to return to England by Oliver Cromwell, overturning their expulsion by Edward I in 1290. This historic synagogue is unique in Europe for having held regular services continuously for over 300 years. Accessed through a stone archway with wrought-iron gates, the synagogue sits in a secluded courtyard, offering a peaceful retreat amidst the bustling city. Above the entrance, carved in Hebrew, are the words “Kahal Kadosh Shaar Asamaim,” meaning “Holy Congregation the Gates of Heaven,” a testament to the gratitude of the first Sephardim who found refuge in London.

The courtyard, now surrounded by modern office buildings, was once home to the congregation’s school, almshouse, and orphanage. The Bevis Marks Synagogue, a Grade I-listed building, reflects the rich history and cultural heritage of the Sephardic Jews who settled in London centuries ago. Although the descendants of the original Spanish and Portuguese families are few today, the services and traditions they established have been faithfully preserved.

Bevis Marks Synagogue, New York Jewish Travel Guide

Its interior and fittings are largely unchanged from the original and reflect the influence of the great Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam in 1675.

Inside the spacious ivory prayer room of Bevis Marks Synagogue, large arched windows flood the sanctuary with natural light. Along the eastern wall, the striking Aron Kodesh houses 30 Sefer Torah scrolls. Meticulously hand-carved from oak to resemble mahogany, it features columns painted in the style of Italian marble and adorned with Renaissance-style carvings in gold and green. The ark served as the centerpiece of reverence, and two tablets inscribed in Hebrew with the Ten Commandments crowned it.

The bimah occupies the center of the sanctuary, and a dark wood balustrade adorned with brass candlesticks surrounds the reading desk. The Tikvah (reader’s desk), draped with a blue throw featuring gold embroidery and fringe, enhances the sanctuary’s ornate beauty. Above, seven brass candelabras, symbolizing the days of the week, hang. It was electrified in 1928. Supporting the sanctuary’s sides and back, the women’s gallery features twelve marble columns representing the tribes of Israel, separated by a wrought iron grill.

Original benches from Creechurch Lane’s synagogue sit on wooden floors, embodying the synagogue’s historical continuity. Bevis Marks Synagogue has hosted distinguished figures such as Montefiore, Benjamin Disraeli, Prince Charles, and Tony Blair, underscoring its enduring cultural and historical significance.

Rabbi Shalom Morris, originally from the United States and previously serving as a Rabbi at the Spanish Portuguese Synagogue in New York, shared with the NYJTG, “Bevis Marks is the first synagogue built in a courtyard, and it remains here to this day as a functioning synagogue. It is probably the only synagogue in the world to have maintained unbroken worship since the 1700s.”

“While a diverse group of people visit, all the traditions have been meticulously preserved, including specific melodies and customs. Today, we have a regular Shabbat attendance of around 30 people, and for Yom Kippur, about 300 people gather here.”

“When you attend a Shabbat service at Bevis Marks, there’s a unique quality that feels different from a typical Ashkenazi or Sephardic synagogue with our melodies and services. It has a character that feels altogether unique within the Jewish world. We still make some of our announcements in Portuguese. We hope that anyone visiting London will spend Shabbat dinner at the synagogue and have a truly authentic experience. It will be a unique delight for everyone experiencing this historic synagogue.”

Synagogue Brit Milah Chair from the 1800s, New York Jewish Travel Guide

“Unfortunately, the windows, which were designed to provide abundant light, are now under threat due to plans to build two high-rise towers nearby. These towers would negatively impact the quality of life at the synagogue, and we are currently fighting against these plans.”

The trustees of Bevis Marks Synagogue have voiced serious concerns about the proposed construction of two high-rise buildings, warning that their erection would render daily services “almost impossible” by blocking nearly all sunlight except for one hour a day. This Grade I-listed synagogue relies mainly on daylight and candlelight for its worship, and the reduction in natural light would have a devastating impact. The synagogue currently uses up to 240 candles for illumination, with additional electric lighting installed in 1928. Rabbi Shalom Morris emphasized the severity of the situation, stating that the proposed towers “would be catastrophic” and jeopardize “the very survival of our great synagogue as a place of worship.”

Development guidelines suggest that new buildings should “form a positive relationship with the synagogue without dominating or detracting from its architectural and historic value.” However, Rabbi Morris explained to NYJTG, “Our latest effort is to work with the local authority, the City of London, to impose protections that will clearly define what is and isn’t acceptable around the synagogue. The dialogue has been ongoing but not as smooth as we had hoped.”

The synagogue is currently undertaking the Bevis Marks Project, an initiative aimed at enhancing its role as both a place of worship and a cultural landmark. This project will establish a cultural, learning, and visitor center, enriching the community and attracting visitors of all faiths to explore the treasures and traditions of Judaism and its history. The project aims to welcome 40,000 visitors annually, including up to four school groups per week.

The refurbished annex will feature a stunning exhibition of the community’s priceless ritual silver and other artifacts in the atmospheric undercroft. This exhibition will narrate the stories behind Bevis Marks, its design and construction, the original Spanish and Portuguese community, and the diverse Jewish communities that have revitalized the synagogue over the years.

The addition of a café and shop will enhance the visitor experience, offering a space to relax and reflect after exploring the synagogue and its exhibits. Improved access, including the installation of a lift, will ensure that the synagogue is accessible to everyone, embodying its inclusive and welcoming ethos.

Photo Courtesy Bevis Marks Synagogue Heritage Foundation, New York Jewish Travel Guide

The courtyard will be renovated to host outdoor events, meetings, lectures, workshops, and artistic activities, further enhancing the synagogue’s role as a dynamic community hub. Additionally, the collections of silver, furniture, and other artifacts will be restored, preserved, and cataloged to contemporary museum standards.

Today, Bevis Marks is not just a synagogue but also a vibrant tourist attraction. It welcomes visitors from around the world for services and weekday tours. The synagogue’s interior is illuminated by glowing candlelight, making it a popular choice for weddings and an atmospheric venue for concerts. The increasing number of Jews working in the City of London and its environs has also given Bevis Marks a new role as “the Synagogue in the Square Mile,” serving as a spiritual and cultural hub in the heart of the city.

As Bevis Marks Synagogue continues to thrive, it remains a testament to the enduring spirit of the Sephardic Jewish community in London. The Bevis Marks Project promises to secure its future, ensuring that this historic synagogue remains a place of worship, learning, and cultural enrichment for generations to come. By preserving its rich heritage and adapting to the needs of modern society, Bevis Marks Synagogue stands as a beacon of faith, history, and community in the bustling heart of London.

In addition to its architectural and historical significance, Bevis Marks has also been a center of religious and educational activity. The synagogue has hosted numerous renowned rabbis and scholars, contributing to the intellectual and spiritual life of the Jewish community. Its library, housing a collection of rare books and manuscripts, serves as a valuable resource for researchers and historians.

The Bevis Marks Project is not just about preserving the past but also about shaping the future. By creating a vibrant cultural and educational center, the project seeks to engage a broader audience and deepen understanding of Jewish heritage.

Photo courtesy of Bevis Marks Synagogue of Moses, Aaron, and the Ten Commandments inscribed in Spanish.

The ongoing restoration and conservation efforts at Bevis Marks Synagogue are dedicated to preserving its priceless treasures for future generations.

Rabbi Morris stated, “Our goal is to unveil the new center by the end of 2024 and extend a heartfelt invitation to Jewish communities worldwide to join us in this celebration. We look forward to welcoming visitors to experience the transformed Bevis Marks Synagogue.”

The Bevis Marks Synagogue stands as a testament to the enduring spirit and resilience of London’s Sephardic Jewish community. Its rich history, architectural grandeur, and vibrant community life make it a cherished and distinctive landmark. The Bevis Marks Project ensures that this historic synagogue continues to thrive, offering a sanctuary for worship, learning, and cultural enrichment for generations to come. As Bevis Marks Synagogue bridges the past with the future, it remains a beacon of faith, history, and community in the heart of London.

For additional information,

Authored by Meyer Harroch, New York Jewish Travel, and New York Jewish

2 Ashworth Road, London, W9 1JY  02072892573

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About the Author
Meyer Harroch is the founder and travel writer of the prestigious New York Jewish Travel Guide, a digital Jewish travel publication established in 2013 that promotes Jewish travel, Jewish heritage destinations, international hotels, dining, and airlines, as well as tourism. Also, Meyer publishes the New York Jewish Parenting Guide, the New York Jewish Guide, the New York Jewish Chamber of Commerce, and the New York Jewish Event Guide.
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