At Bevis Marks Synagogue
Built in 1701, Bevis Marks Synagogue is the oldest synagogue in this country and it has been continuously in use for over three hundred years, making it – according to Rabbi Shalom Morris – the oldest working synagogue in the world.
Its origin lies with Spanish and Portuguese Jews who came to London in the seventeenth century, escaping persecution of the Catholic Church and taking advantage of a greater religious tolerance in this country under Oliver Cromwell’s rule. When war broke out between England and Spain in 1654, Antonio Robles, a wealthy merchant, went to court to prove that he was Jewish rather than Spanish – establishing a legal precedent which permitted Jewish people to live freely in this country for the first time since their expulsion by Edward I in 1290.
By 1657, a house in Creechurch Lane in the City of London had been converted into a synagogue and the site of Bevis Marks was acquired in 1699. Constructed by Joseph Avis, a Quaker builder who is said to have refused any profit from the work, and with an oak beam presented by Queen Anne, the synagogue was completed in 1701.
Remarkably, the synagogue has seen almost no significant alteration in the last three centuries and there are members of the current congregation who can trace their ancestors back to those who worshipped here when it first opened – even to the degree of knowing where their forebears sat.
On the sunlit morning I visited, my prevailing impression was of the dramatic contrast between the darkness of the ancient oak panelling and the pale white-washed walls illuminated by the tall clear-glass windows, framing a space hung with enormous brass chandeliers comprising a gleaming forest of baubles suspended low over the congregation. You sense that you follow in the footsteps of innumerable Londoners who came there before you and it makes your heart leap.
The lowest bench for the smallest children at the end of the orphans’ pew
Rabbi Shalom Morris turns the huge key in the original lock at Bevis Marks
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