22 January 2020

Bevis Marks Synagogue
has been the ‘cathedral’ of
Anglo-Jewry for generations

Bevis Marks Synagogue … the only synagogue in Europe that has held regular services continuously for more than 300 years (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

During this week’s visit to London for the launch of resources for Holocaust Memorial Day, I also visited one synagogue, Bevis Marks Synagogue, and the site of two former synagogues in the East End, Fieldgate Street Great Synagogue and Brick Lane Synagogue.

Bevis Marks Synagogue is often seen as the Jewish ‘cathedral’ among synagogues in London, and is also the oldest operating synagogue on these islands. But there were a number of other reasons for visiting Bevis Marks this week:

● the synagogue helped to fund and held the trust deeds of the first Jewish burial ground in Ireland, at Fairview in Dublin;

● in recent years, I have found one branch of the Comerford family whose extended family tree includes families who were members of Bevis Marks Synagogue;

● I am researching a paper on the Irish-born scientist JD Bernal, who had many ancestors linked with this synagogue.

I suppose, in addition, after recent visits to Jewish sites in Spain and Portugal, I had an added interest in the story of the Sephardic community of Spanish and Portuguese descent that began to settle in these islands over 350 years ago.

Bevis Marks Synagogue is close to the heart of the City of London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Bevis Marks Synagogue, which I visited on Tuesday morning (21 January 2020), is officially the Qahal Kadosh Sha’ar ha-Shamayim (קָהָל קָדוֹשׁ שַׁעַר הַשָׁמַיִם, or ‘Holy Congregation Gate of Heaven’). It stands in a courtyard off Bevis Marks, the street in the city of London that gives this synagogue its popular name.

The synagogue was built in 1701 and is at the heart of the story of London’s Spanish and Portuguese Jewish community. It is a Grade I listed building, and it is the only synagogue in Europe that has held regular services continuously for more than 300 years.

But the story of the community that has been here for centuries, goes back into the mid-17th century.

Following the mediaeval expulsions of Jews from England, the first Jews to return 300 later were Marranos or Jews from Spain and Portugal who had been forced to convert to Christianity by the Inquisition. Many of these families adopted Spanish or Portuguese surnames. Outwardly, many lived in London as Catholics and attended Mass at the Spanish and Portuguese embassies but continued to practice their Jewish religion in secret.

Inside Bevis Marks Synagogue (Photograph: Photograph: Edwardx / Wikpedia)

The Netherlands was a Spanish colony in the 16th century but religious tolerance provided the key to political stability there. Many Jewish families who were expelled from Spain by the Inquisition in 1492 or who fled Portugal made their way to Amsterdam where Jews could openly practice their religion.

In the first half of the 17th century, Amsterdam was home to a thriving Jewish community. In 1654, a group of Jews sailed from Amsterdam to the Americas and founded the first Jewish community in the New World.

Oliver Cromwell contacted Menasseh ben Israel, a rabbi of the Portuguese Jewish community in Amsterdam. A petition was sent to Cromwell in 1649 and Menasseh ben Israel arrived in London in 1655, asking for Jews to be readmitted to live and trade in England.

The small courtyard beside Bevis Marks Synagogue (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

When war broke out between England and Spain, the property of Spanish citizens trading in England was confiscated. One Marrano, Antonio Robles, went to court, protesting that his Spanish citizenship has been adopted under duress and that his real nationality was Jewish.

The Robles case persuaded the heads of the most prominent Marrano families who initially kept their distance from Menasseh ben Israel to sign a petition thanking Cromwell for the freedom they had to pray in their own homes and asking for a cemetery for Jewish burials.

This petition received no reply. However, Robles won his case, and the right of Jews to live in England was confirmed. Soon, a house was leased in Creechurch Lane in London and converted into a synagogue, which opened in 1657. The diarist Samuel Pepys attended a service at the small synagogue in Creechurch Lane during the festival of Simchat Torah in October 1663.

Bevis Marks Synagogue was built in 1701 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Rabbi David Nieto took spiritual charge of the congregation of Sephardim or Spanish and Portuguese Jews in London in 1698.

The arrival in London of Jews in large numbers over the previous decades created the need for a much larger premises. A new committee was formed by António Gomes Serra, Menasseh Mendes, Alfonso Rodrigues, Manuel Nunez Miranda, Andrea Lopez and Pontaleão Rodriguez.

After searching for a year, they signed a contract on 12 February 1699 with Joseph Avis, a Quaker, to erect a building at a cost of £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.

There is a legend that the timber for the roof was donated by the then Princess Anne, later Queen Ann; the roof was destroyed by fire in 1738 but was repaired in 1749.

Above the central doorway are the Hebrew and secular dates of its opening: 5462, 1701 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The committee leased the site from Sir Thomas and Lady Pointz (or Littleton) on 24 June 1699. The tract of land at Plough Yard, in Bevis Marks, was leased for 61 years, with an option of renewal for a further 38 years, at £120 a year.

The new synagogue was completed and dedicated in September 1701. The plain exterior and its large, clear windows are both characteristics of the church architecture of Sir Christopher Wren. Above the central doorway are the Hebrew and secular dates of its opening: 5462, 1701.

Inside, the interior décor, furnishing and layout reflect the influence of the great Portuguese Synagogue of Amsterdam of 1675.

The Renaissance-style Aron haKodesh or Holy Ark at the east wall, holding the Torah scrolls, resembles in design the reredos of churches of the same period. Although it is made of oak, it is painted like it is made of coloured Italian marble.

The Aron haKodesh or Holy Ark resembles in design the reredos of churches of the same period (Photograph © Spanish and Portuguese Jewish Community)

Seven brass candelabra symbolise the seven days of the week, with the largest – in the centre – representing the Sabbath. This central candelabrum was donated by the community of the Sephardic community of Amsterdam. The candles are still lit today for High Holy Days and weddings. Throughout the rest of the year, the Synagogue is lit by the electric lights added in 1928. The ner tamid or sanctuary lamp is made of silver and dates from 1876.

Twelve pillars, symbolising the 12 tribes of Israel, support the women's gallery.

In front of the Tevah (Bimah) is the grand chair for the Haham, the senior rabbi of the Sephardic community.

The synagogue has 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, came from the original synagogue at Creechurch Lane, date from 1657 and are still used regularly. The boxed pews with canopies for the wardens are unusual for an English synagogue.

A number of seats in the synagogue are roped off because they belong to or once 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, reserved seat, with a footstool, is the seat nearest the Ark on the central row of the left-hand benches. This once belonged to the 19th century philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore (1784-1885), the congregation’s most famous member.

It is now used – but only on rare occasions – by members of the Montefiore family, or by visiting dignitaries as a particular honour: Prince Charles sat here at the synagogue’s tercentenary service in 2001; Tony Blair used it for the service celebrating the 350th anniversary of the re-settlement of Jews in Britain in 2006.

Family names on the war memorial on the west wall of the synagogue (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

I climbed the stairs to the women’s gallery for a wonderful view down into the main body of the synagogue. Here painted boards list the previous president, wardens, secretaries and treasurers of Bevis Marks. Many of the family names are still found in the community today: Montefiore, Sassoon, Sebag …

At the west end of the women’s gallery, display cabinets hold a collection of beautiful Torah mantles. One of the mantles is made from the silk wedding dress worn by Judith Barnet-Cohen when she married Sir Moses Montefiore.

Benjamin Mendes da Costa bought the lease of the ground on which the building stood in 1747, 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.

Bevis Marks Synagogue was at the heart of Anglo-Jewish religious and community life for more than a century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

For Sephardic Jews, the Bevis Marks Synagogue was at the heart of Anglo-Jewish religious and community life for more than a century. The congregation came to the aid of the Jewish community in Dublin by donating funds to build a wall around Ballybough Cemetery and providing an agent to oversee the works. The deeds for the cemetery were then lodged at Bevis Marks Synagogue.

Moses Montefiore was also involved in the 19th century in the Damascus Affair and the Mortara Affair, two events provoking much international discussion of Jewish rights and reputation.

The Chief Rabbis of the Anglo-Sephardic Community (Hahamim) who have served at Bevis Marks include Daniel Nieto (1654-1728) and Moses Gaster (1856-1939). Other notable members of the congregation include the boxer Daniel Mendoza, and Isaac D’Israeli, father of the future Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, who resigned from the congregation after an argument over synagogue fees; in 1817, the year that would have been Benjamin’s bar mitzvah, he took his children to the Church of Saint Andrew, Holborn, where they were baptised Christians.

As the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish community grew and moved out of the City and East End of London to the West End and the suburbs, the members wanted to build a new synagogue in the West End. When the leadership refused this, some members formed a breakaway synagogue in Burton Street that later became the West London Synagogue.

A branch synagogue opened in Wigmore Street in 1853; this moved to Bryanston Street, Bayswater (1866), and later to Lauderdale Road, Maida Vale (1896).

However, attendance at Bevis Marks declined so much that a move to sell the site was contemplated in 1886. A ‘Bevis Marks Anti-Demolition League’ was founded and the proposed move was abandoned.

Bevis Marks Synagogue has survived two IRA bombings in the 1990s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

During the London Blitz in World War II, the synagogue’s silver, records and fittings were moved to a place of safety and the synagogue suffered only minor damage.

The synagogue was hit by a Semtex bomb planted by the IRA in an attack on the Baltic Exchange in 1992. One of the first people to enter the cordoned-off streets was the Chairman of Buildings for the Spanish and Portuguese Congregation. He set in place a rebuilding programme that lasted 15 weeks, and the building was restored in time for his daughter's wedding.

A year later, the synagogue was his again by the IRA affected on Bishopsgate in 1993. Nearly £200,000 was raised by donation to help with the renovations to return it to its former glory.

The synagogue retains notable historical and community records, including circumcision and marriage records dating back to 1679.

Today, the Spanish and Portuguese community in London has three synagogues: Bevis Marks, Lauderdale Road and a smaller synagogue in Wembley. Other Sephardic synagogues in Britain have associated status.

Since 2017, Shalom Morris, an American of Ashkenazi descent, is the rabbi of Bevis Marks. We sat there yesterday morning as he spoke to a group of children from a school in Whitechapel, affirming their diversity and identities, and encouraging them to speak up for religious pluralism and tolerance and against racism and bullying.

Bevis Marks Synagogue remains the flagship synagogue of the British Sephardic Jewish community. Daily services are held here and the synagogue is frequently a venue for weddings and other celebrations.

Daily services continue to be held in Bevis Mark Synagogue throughout the week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

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