The interior of Bevis Marks Synagogue looking towards the ark and with the bima in the left foreground. The ark is made of oak, but painted to look like Italian marble, as are the supports to the ladies gallery. (photo by Edgar Asher)
Britain’s oldest synagogue, Bevis Marks, was built in 1701. Now situated in the heart of London’s Square Mile business district, the synagogue has been in continuous use since its foundation.
In 1655, Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel arrived in London from Holland with a petition to Oliver Cromwell asking that Jews be allowed to once again to settle and live in England and begin to trade – they had been banned from the country some 366 years earlier. In 1656, Cromwell agreed, despite opposition from London merchants.
Jews had been living in England since Roman and Anglo-Saxon times. In 1066, William the Conqueror encouraged Jewish craftsmen and merchants to move to England from northern France. However, in 1290, Jews were banished altogether from England.
Bevis Marks Synagogue was, from its very beginning, an Orthodox congregation set up to serve the Sephardi Jews in the area. The need to build the synagogue came about because of the increase in the Jewish population of the neighborhood and the lack of other synagogues in the area.
In early 1698, a committee was set up, consisting of the leading Sephardi leaders in the neighborhood to look into the possibility of building a new synagogue to cope with the influx of Jews moving into this part of London. In February 1699, a contract was signed for the building of a new, larger synagogue and, in September 1701, Bevis Marks Synagogue was dedicated. The interior décor, layout and furnishing were based on the design of the main Sephardi synagogue in Amsterdam, which had been completed in 1675. The central candelabrum, one of seven that hang in Bevis Marks, was a gift from the community of Amsterdam at the time of its original construction.
The prominent Renaissance-style ark was painted to look as though it is made of colored Italian marble; in fact, it is surprisingly made entirely of oak. The 12 pillars, representing the 12 tribes of Israel, which support the ladies gallery, are also made of oak and painted to look like Italian marble.
Bevis Marks became the centre of the English Spanish and Portuguese Jewish community and was also the home of the community’s chief rabbis.
Bevis Marks has always been intimately associated with London, so much so that on the eight occasions when a Jewish lord mayor has been elected, Bevis Marks has been the destination of the new lord mayor’s first official duty. It has made no difference if the mayor followed the Sephardi or Ashkenazi rite. Many notable Jews have had association with Bevis Marks, including Moses Montefiore, who was also a big benefactor of the synagogue; prime minister Benjamin Disraeli’s father Isaac; and Daniel Mendoza, who was an English boxing champion in the late 18th century.
Several seats in the synagogue, even today, are roped off with a red cord to be reserved for notable people who have been associated with Bevis Marks. One seat in particular was the reserved seat of Montefiore. Now, this seat is a seat of honor reserved for a distinguished visitor, such as a Jewish lord mayor. In 2001, Prince Charles occupied the seat during the synagogue’s 300th-year commemoration ceremony. In 2006, prime minister Tony Blair was guest of honor at the synagogue during the ceremony marking the 350th anniversary of the resettlement of Jews in England.
London, from a Jewish standpoint, has undergone many changes. Over the years, Bevis Marks, apart from being the flagship synagogue of the Sephardi community in Britain, has had a large catchment area around London’s Square Mile. Two things happened to affect the attendance at the synagogue, however. First, many Jews who had become more affluent moved to other parts of London and, second, the city itself and its financial district were redeveloped from being primarily residential to large office blocks.
Nonetheless, Bevis Marks still managed to hold regular but less well-attended services. At one point, the once proud centre of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews looked like it might become an historic landmark, rather than remain a vital house of prayer. After all, the community itself designated Lauderdale Road Synagogue in northwest London as the community’s administrative headquarters. In addition, the number of British Jews claiming affiliation with any Jewish community organizations fell precipitously over a span of 50 years. Many British synagogues were on the verge of closing down or amalgamating with other synagogues in the same district.
In 1955, there were an estimated 410,000 Jews in the United Kingdom; by the time of the national census in 2001, this figure was down to only 270,000. The question on the census form asked, What denomination do you consider yourself to belong to?
Bevis Marks still attracts many visitors from all over the world, both Jewish and non-Jewish. With a few exceptions, its interior is exactly how it looked some 315 years ago. When all is said and done, the building remains a place to offer up prayer, despite some trouble, in recent times, to gather a minyan of 10 men to hold a prayer service. However, the rebuilding of London’s Square Mile and its surrounding neighborhood has brought new blood to Bevis Marks, as the developments have included up-market expensive homes, particularly in the nearby dockland areas. Young Jewish businesspeople are once again making use of the synagogue and Bevis Marks is secure in its future both as a unique architectural building and an active synagogue.