LONDON — A short stroll from the Bank of England in the heart of London’s financial district, amid skyscrapers bustling with commerce, nestles — however implausible this may sound — the oldest continually used synagogue in Britain, possibly Europe, maybe even the world.
It’s not that Bevis Marks Synagogue is small, understated or deliberately making itself obscure. To the contrary. Opened in 1701, it is an imposing two-story building, with Hebrew text above the entrance proudly proclaiming its official name: “The holy congregation: Gate of Heaven.”
But it sits in a tranquil courtyard, encircled and overshadowed by the Gherkin, the Walkie-Talkie and the other thrusting glass and steel financial high-rises of the City of London, and you wouldn’t find it if you didn’t know it was there.
Some say its architecture was influenced by Sir Christopher Wren’s vast St. Paul’s Cathedral, a 20-minute walk away; others that Princess (later Queen) Anne donated its roof timber. Well, maybe.
Its internal arrangement certainly echoes the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam, through which many of its early congregants had passed.
The synagogue is breathtaking — high-ceilinged, big-windowed and airy, with an extraordinary Torah ark across its eastern wall, 12 pillars for the tribes of Israel supporting the upper gallery, seven candle-bearing brass candelabras still used to provide much of the lighting, and even some of the original benches and flooring.
The origins of Bevis Marks lie with the first generations of crypto-Jews, Marranos, warily making their way back to Britain, largely from Spain and Portugal via Amsterdam, some 400 years after the expulsion of the late 1200s. Reestablishing their presence, initially under the relatively tolerant rule of Oliver Cromwell, they gradually felt sufficiently secure to more publicly assert their faith, but nonetheless sited this house of worship a short distance from the Tower of London, where they might be afforded royal protection if matters changed for the worse. (About the name: Land in the area was once owned by the abbots of Bury St. Edmunds; Bury’s Mark evolved into Bevis Marks.)
Taking shape just as the Great Plague and Great Fire had ravaged this area and much of London, the Bevis Marks Sephardi community has somehow managed to survive ever since, sometimes by the skin of its teeth: Local Jews moved out of the East End of London to more prosperous areas, leading to pressure for a narrowly averted sale of the synagogue in the 1880s; it suffered minor damage in the Nazi blitz and in a nearby IRA bombing 30 years ago; at the height of the COVID pandemic, only the rabbi, Shalom Morris, who lives on the premises, was reliably present for Shabbat prayers — single-siddur–edly maintaining those 300 years of worshipful continuity.
Now, though, Bevis Marks is preparing to show itself more prominently to the world, to Jews and non-Jews.
As Morris escorted me around last week, restoration work — relating to the synagogue’s electric system, some water damage, brickwork and broken benches — was nearing completion. In full swing, though, to the right of the entrance, was the construction of a visitors center — patron Prince Charles. It is set to open next summer, telling the story of the community, and the wider tale of Jewish resettlement, to the great British public, school groups emphatically included. What was once a coal tunnel beneath the synagogue, says Morris, will become a gallery for Bevis Marks’ own collection: marriage records dating back through the centuries, vestments, Torah bells, some of these items not seen for a century or more.
American-born Morris, the first rabbi here for a century, hopes the new publicity will help Bevis Marks grow as a community; it currently has about 200 members, drew about 300 people for Yom Kippur services in the years before COVID, and just about managed a daily minyan. He also believes it will become “one of the prime places in the world for Jews to visit, a world heritage site for Judaism — for its continuity, its history.”
At front left inside the shul, Morris carefully lifts a painter’s dustsheet off the seat near the ark where longtime Bevis Marks member Sir Moses Montefiore would sit. Nowadays, the seat is kept empty, offered only to the most esteemed of visiting dignitaries. Prince Charles sat here in 2001, attending a service to mark the synagogue’s tercentenary. So, too, Tony Blair, when he visited as prime minister. Morris hopes to be hosting more VIPs — he mentioned Israel’s chief rabbis — as the story of Bevis Marks, its survival and significance, starts to resonate more widely.
The respect for minorities that it symbolizes for Britain has been helping Bevis Marks head off the most recent threats to its well-being — development proposals for a 50-story building to the immediate south, and a 20-story building to the east. In what Morris believes was an unprecedented rejection of a planning application in this high-rise paradise zone, the authorities turned down the 50-story plan, in view of the possible threat to the foundations of the synagogue building, the drastic reduction in its light, and the wider sense that the public benefit of preserving Bevis Marks in its current context outweighed the ostensible benefits of the new skyscraper.
The developers could yet appeal, however. And the 20-story application has yet to be heard. So the battles are not over. The synagogue’s leaders are ultimately seeking what Morris calls “clarity” and the guarantee of lasting protection against developers’ encroachment. Planning laws in the City ensure that the view of St. Paul’s Cathedral is not impeded by new construction, notes Morris. “Well, this is essentially the cathedral of British Jewry — a symbol of British tolerance for minorities.” Thus far, he says with heartfelt relief, the authorities have recognized this.
Morris is plainly hugely invested in ensuring not only the preservation but also hopefully the growth of this extraordinary place — the only non-Christian house of worship in the City. He relates happily that his newborn son is one of six children born to community members in the COVID era — the first Bevis Marks babies in 30 years.
“On Yom Kippur we say a prayer for the victims of the Inquisition,” Morris says with pride. “So continuity has real meaning here.”
“People kept praying here right through World War II,” he adds. “But miss a generation and it’s gone… We cannot be the ones that let it turn into a museum.”
** This Editor’s Note was sent out Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.
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