This Rosh Hashanah British Jews will simultaneously celebrate a new year while they recall the horrors and heroics of the Blitz. September 15, 2015 is both the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain and the second day of Rosh Hashanah. It is a convergence that seems to be in conflict, one of celebrating joy and the other of commemorating sorrow. However, for one British Synagogue they are perfectly symbiotic.
In 1940 Bevis Marks Synagogue found itself in the middle of a war zone as German bombers strafed the East End along the Thames. Miraculously, the synagogue survived, while painfully so many thousands of souls and other houses of worship did not. In fact, as synagogue lore has it, the Jews of Bevis Marks carried on throughout the conflict, praying to their King in Heaven for their king on earth. While synagogues throughout Europe lay silent that year, empty of their Jews, the Jews of London were free to worship their God. By war’s end Bevis Marks would lay claim to being the longest continuously running synagogue in Europe, in addition to being the oldest synagogue in England.
The construction of Bevis Marks Synagogue was completed the week before Rosh Hashanah in 1701. Each year the congregation celebrates this anniversary on the Shabbat preceding the Jewish New Year. On this year’s anniversary, Bevis Marks Synagogue welcomed me to their historic community as their new Rabbi. The honor was mine, as I follow in the path of the community’s earlier leaders. It was Rabbi David Nieto of Bevis Marks who famously preached in 1701 concerning the unity of the universe, and how all is ultimately one. To hate another, is therefore to hate oneself.
England recognized this principle early on. Following the Glorious Revolution, Protestants, Dissenters, Catholics and Jews were permitted to pray as they saw fit, even if denied full rights. While not living according the same faiths, they could still live together. It was former Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks who celebrated this idea. He called it the Dignity of Difference – true pluralism. Britain understood that all subjects did not need to be the same to be a part of the same country. Indeed, through this dynamic diversity, England was ultimately strengthened.
This message of freedom and tolerance resonated for the builders of Bevis Marks. They were Jews of Spanish and Portuguese ancestry. They had escaped the terrors of the Inquisition to carry on their lives within a new Kingdom’s shores. They understood that freedom could never be taken for granted. During the dark days of WWII all Britons were reminded of that as they huddled underground.
I and Bevis Marks also share this anniversary week with her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. She has led this nation by her personal example of integrity, poise, intelligence and grace. On this occasion I therefore extend to her the blessing of my predecessor, Rabbi Nieto, who in 1701 prayed for the then King of England, William III.
“A fervid and humble prayer addressed to the Great and Omnipotent God of Israel by the Congregation of Jews in London, in which they implore the assistance and help of Heaven at the Deliberations of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, their sovereign, and both the Chambers of her August Parliament.”
May this New Year be a year of peace and prosperity. Let us pray that nations seek the fulfillment of their aspirations through the principles of tolerance and human dignity.