I’m quite glad that I took a detour to London for a final stop during my trip to Europe. It gave me the opportunity to visit the historic Bevis Marks Synagogue. The synagogue was built in 1701 and still functions as a congregation today. It is England’s oldest synagogue, and dates from when Jews began to return to the Island in 1656. Previously, Jews were officially expelled from England in 1290.
Founded by Portuguese Jews, at first coming from Amsterdam, and then from Portugal directly, this congregation played a vital role in the founding of other Jewish communities in the New World. Menasseh ben Israel from Amsterdam worked to negotiate the return of Jews to England with Oliver Cromwell as part of his messianic agitations.
The synagogue is enchanting, much a miniature of Amsterdam’s Esnoga, completed shortly earlier in 1675. Still, most of the woodwork is local, with some of the chandeliers coming from Amsterdam. It is located in a small alleyway in what is today downtown London. It was originally surrounded by a school building and orphanage, though those properties were sold off long ago when most Jews moved to other areas of London.
I was shown around by the congregation’s extremely friendly Synagogue Manager, Maurice Bitton. He pointed out the seat of Moses Montefiore who devoted most of his life to Jewish charities around the world in the 19th century. We were also joined by my friend Jack Shlomo who is a devoted member of the synagogue when he isn’t at Shearith Israel in New York! I hope I’ll have the opportunity to visit Bevis Marks again in the future and then also stay for a shabbat.