Bevis Marks Synagogue
Bevis Marks Synagogue (AKA Kahal Sahar Asamaim or Sha'ar ha-Shamayim) is located off Bevis Marks, in the City of London. The synagogue, affiliated to London's historic Spanish and Portuguese Jewish community, is the oldest synagogue in the United Kingdom still in use. It is a Grade 1 listed building.


In 1698 Rabbi David Nieto took spiritual charge of a congregation of Spanish and Portuguese Jews (also called Sephardim) who met in a small synagogue in Creechurch Lane. A considerable influx of Jews made it necessary to obtain more commodious quarters. Accordingly a committee was appointed, consisting of António Gomes Serra, Menasseh Mendes, Alfonso Rodrigues, Manuel Nunez Miranda, Andrea Lopez, and Pontaleão Rodriguez. It investigated matters for nearly a year, and on February 12, 1699, signed a contract with Joseph Avis, a Quaker, for the construction of a building to cost £2,750. Avis would later decline to collect his fee, on the ground that it was wrong to profit from building a house of God. On 24 June of the same year, the committee leased from Lady Ann Pointz (alias Littleton) and Sir Thomas Pointz (alias Littleton) a tract of land at Plough Yard, in Bevis Marks, for 61 years, with the option of renewal for a further 38 years, at £120 a year. Avis began building at once, reportedly incorporating in the roof a beam from a royal ship presented to the community by Queen Anne. The structure was completed and dedicated in 1701. With the exception of the roof (which was destroyed by fire in 1738 and repaired in 1749), it is today as it was over 300 years ago. The interior decor and furnishing and layout of the synagogue reflect the influence of the great Amsterdam Synagogue of 1677. In 1747 Benjamin Mendes da Costa bought the lease of the ground on which the building stood, 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. The synagogue suffered some damage in the IRA Bishopsgate bombing on 24 April 1993, but has since been restored.

The Bevis Marks Synagogue was for more than a century the religious center of the Anglo-Jewish world, and served as a clearing-house for congregational and individual troubles all the world over; e.g., the appeal of the Jamaican Jews for a reduction in taxation (1736); the internecine quarrel among the Barbados Jews (1753); and the aiding of seven-year-old Moses de Paz, who escaped from Gibraltar in 1777 to avoid a forced conversion. 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, members demanded a new synagogue be built in the West End. When leadership refused that, members formed a breakaway synagogue in Burton Street, which later became the West London Synagogue. In 1853 a branch synagogue was opened in Wigmore Street; in 1866 this moved to Bryanston Street, Bayswater. Attendance at Bevis Marks declined so much that in 1886 a move to sell the site was contemplated; a "Bevis Marks Anti-Demolition League" was founded, under the auspices of H. Guedalla and A. H. Newman, and the proposed move was abandoned. In 1896 a new synagogue was built at Lauderdale Road, Maida Vale, as successor to the Bryanston Street synagogue.

The synagogue's most prominent feature is undoubtedly the beautiful Renaissance-style ark (containing the Torah scrolls) located at the centre of the Eastern wall of the building. Both in its location and in its design, it is like the reredos of the churches of the same period. Painted to look as though it is made of coloured Italian marble, it is in fact made entirely of oak. Seven hanging brass candelabra symbolise the seven days of the week, the largest of which - hanging in the centre of the synagogue - represents the Sabbath. This central candelabrum was donated by the community of the Great Synagogue in Amsterdam, upon which Bevis Marks' interior is based largely. The candles are still lit today for weddings and the Jewish Festivals. The rest of the year the Synagogue is lit by the electric lights added in 1928. Twelve pillars, symbolising the twelve tribes of Israel, support the women's gallery. The synagogue contains 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, taken from the original synagogue at Creechurch Lane, date from 1657 and are still regularly used. A number of seats in the synagogue are roped off as they belong or have belonged to notable people within the community. Two seats are withheld for the most senior officials of the congregation's publishing arm, Heshaim. Those that hold the positions are welcome to sit in them when visiting the synagogue, but they are otherwise kept vacant. A third seat, fitted with a footstool, has been withheld as it belonged to Sir Moses Montefiore, a very notable Jewish philanthropist. It is the seat nearest the Ark on the central row of the left half of the benches. It is only ever occupied by very senior dignitaries and it is considered a high honour to be allowed to sit in the seat. Recently Prince Charles sat in the seat during the tercentenary service,and Prime Minister Tony Blair for the service celebrating the 350th anniversary of the re settlement of the Jews in Great Britain.

The synagogue today
Today the Spanish and Portuguese descendant community operates three synagogues. In addition to Bevis Marks, there is Lauderdale Road, which is the administrative headquarters, and a smaller synagogue in Wembley. The community's sheltered housing "Harris Court" and old-age home "Edinburgh House" are located there as well. A number of other Sephardic synagogues in Britain have associated status. Bevis Marks Synagogue remains the flagship synagogue of the community and indeed of Anglo-Jewry in general. Regular daily, Sabbath morning and Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat services are held. The synagogue remains a favoured venue for weddings and other landmark celebrations. On Friday 13 November 1998, Lord Levene of Portsoken became the eighth Jewish Lord Mayor of London. An Ashkenazi by birth, Lord Levene's first public act was to walk, with a retinue, from his official residence ( Mansion House) to Bevis Marks Synagogue, for the Sabbath Eve service.This was repeated on Friday 12 November 2010 by the current Lord Mayor Michael Bear. The tercentenary of the synagogue was celebrated in 2001 in the presence of Prince Charles. On 13 June 2007 the 350th anniversary of the readmission of Jews to the British Isles was commemorated by a service at Bevis Marks Synagogue in the presence of Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, the Lord Mayor, and Prime Minister Tony Blair. The synagogue is the only one in Europe which has had continuous services for over 300 years.


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