Last month, CBA London members were given the opportunity to visit Bevis Marks Synagogue; the oldest synagogue in continuous use the UK. Due to past laws prohibiting the Jewish people building on public thoroughfares, the building cannot be seen at all from Bevis Marks. The only indicator of its presence is an entrance sign (written in Hebrew) above a brick archway built into the surrounding office building. Upon entering the iron gates just beyond the brick arch, we were able to see the building itself for the first time. The fairly unassuming appearance of the red brick exterior made the reveal of the stunning interior all the more impressive.
The first half of the visit consisted of a lecture by the synagogue’s curator, Maurice Bitton, about the history of Judaism in the UK, how Bevis Marks Synagogue came to be built, some notable historic members of the congregation, and the Jewish community at Bevis Marks today.
Jewish people were first brought to the UK by William the Conqueror in 1070 to work as bankers/money lenders, as the Catholic Normans did not deal directly with money. After facing much anti-Semitism for over two centuries, the Jews were expelled from Britain by Edward I in 1290. They did not return to Britain until after the Civil War, when Sephardi Jews living in Amsterdam arranged a meeting with Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell agreed to let Jewish people return to Britain, and after arriving in 1656 they settled in the Bevis Marks area. Their first place of worship, on Creechurch Lane, was just a room in a house. The foundations of the Bevis Marks Synagogue were laid in 1699 by Joseph Avis (which was around the time much of East London was rebuilt after the Great Fire) and it was completed in 1701.
The main inspiration for the synagogue’s design was the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam, where the original worshippers came from. Although the layout is similar – the Bevis Marks synagogue is half the size. As the synagogue was situated near a large number of churches, it was specifically designed to blend in and keep a low profile. It is the only place of worship in London from this period with the interior still intact. The wooden benches have rarely been repaired since the opening of the synagogue, and some wooden benches from the Creechurch Lane room predating the synagogue still remain. The seven chandeliers were given as gifts from Amsterdam, representing the seven days of the week (with the largest chandelier representing the Sabbath). The Holy Arc, where the scrolls of the Torah are kept, has wooden carvings typical of the period (similar to those in churches of the same period), and the Ten Commandments written at the top. It is placed against the east wall, so when worshippers face it, they also face Jerusalem. The twelve columns supporting the gallery represent the twelve tribes of Israel. The only major addition to the building since its completion is the choir stall – in roughly 1800. This was due to an increasingly anglicised community wishing to have sung melodies during services. It is still used in services today, to lead chants and for the addition of different melodies.
Some notable congregation members include 19th century philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore; still a legendary figure among London’s Jewish community. His 100th birthday (24 October 1884) was declared a Jewish holiday, with a much celebration at Bevis Marks Synagogue on the day. His seat at the synagogue is now cordoned off, and reserved for special guests only. Another notable member was Benjamin Disraeli, a former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Although his family was converted to Christianity after his father fell out with the synagogue, he was proud of his Jewish heritage, and was faced with anti-Semitism throughout his career.
Today, the synagogue is still a traditional Sephardi one, with men and women worshipping separately. The congregation is not as large today as it was 300 years ago, however it serves an important role for Jewish people working and living in this area of London. Most attend on the Saturday morning services, however the Friday evening services has become increasingly popular for younger people in the community. The synagogue plans extend the undercroft, to display their priceless historic artefacts. The courtyard will also be refurbished, as well as the addition of a new visitor centre, kitchen and toilets. (To read more about this project, click here.)
For the second half of the visit, the visitors were given the opportunity to look around the synagogue, and look at some of the items on display. On the ground floor, these included the Lord Mayors’ Silver Cup, the Montefiore Silver Xiddish Cup and an 18th century silver pointer. Upstairs in the gallery there were several Torah mantles dating from the 18th and 19th century. On the walls surrounding the gallery there were several wooden plaques listing “Gentlemen who have served (or fined) the offices of Parnassim or Gabay Commencing of Rosh Ashana”, dating from the opening of the synagogue up to the present day.
To learn more about Bevis Marks Synagogue, visit their website.
To become a CBA London member, follow this link.