Which is the world’s longest continuously running synagogue? I posed this question over two month ago, and received many comments and suggestions. My working assumption was that London’s Bevis Marks Synagogue is the longest running synagogue. It is where I have the privilege to serve as rabbi. Most of the world’s Jews were displaced over the past few centuries, while Bevis Marks which was built in 1701 has been in use ever since. I’d now like to review the most promising possibilities and to propose an answer. 1701 is the year to beat.
To review, I do not seek the oldest synagogue building, or the longest running service. Rather, I’m specifically interested in identifying the synagogue building with the longest continuously running service. Such a synagogue would represent the most authentic window into the Jewish past, unhindered by a break in tradition or opportunities for ‘new beginnings’ i.e. changes that accompany moving into a new building. The kind of synagogue I seek should operate according to precedent and tradition. It should be home to a living Jewish community that continues to regularly pray there today as it has done since its founding.
I present this review to mark my blog’s 100th post. ‘Shalom Says Hello’ is now in its fourth year, launched in 2013. I’ve enjoyed sharing my travels throughout the Western Sephardic world, and my reflections on Torah and Judaism as inspired by those experiences and my academic studies. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all of the encouragement and feedback from those that read my posts and I thank you for taking the time to read what I’ve written and to look at the pictures that I’ve shared.
While I haven’t visited all of the synagogue contenders, my travels have sensitised me to the vicissitudes of the Jewish world over the past four hundred years. These travels inspired me to contemplate this question.
Here are the top contenders:
10. Curacao. A Jewish community was established on the Caribbean island of Curacao in the seventeenth century. Portuguese Jews then built a synagogue. During these early years several synagogues were successively replaced with newer and larger ones. The current synagogue is stunning, and it is the oldest reaming synagogue in the Americas. However, it was ‘only’ built in 1732.
9. Newport. The Touro Synagogue is the oldest remaining synagogue in America. It was a Spanish & Portuguese synagogue and it was built in 1763 on the model of Bevis Marks. The community began to leave Newport during the American Revolution and the synagogue was closed in 1820. An Ashkenazi community made it their home at the end of the 19th century.
8. Amsterdam. Amsterdam’s Portuguese Synagogue, called the Esnoga, was constructed in 1675. It was partly the model for Bevis Marks. Sadly, the Nazis occupied Amsterdam during WWII and murdered most of the Netherland’s Jews. Needless to say, the synagogue was not used during several years of the war, and it therefore cannot lay claim to continuous worship. Thankfully, a Portuguese community does still persist, and a visit to the synagogue is a must when in Amsterdam.
7. Venice. The Venetian Ghetto marks its 500th anniversary this year. There are five historic synagogues in the Ghetto, though only two are generally still in use. They are each used for half of the year. The oldest synagogue in use, the Spagnola (or Spanish), was built in 1580, and restored/rebuilt in 1634. Heartbreakingly, the Ghetto was emptied in WWII, and half of Venice’s Jews were killed.
6. Israel. There have been active Sephardic communities in Israel since the 1500s. Those communities became known as Israel’s four holy cities. Safed was destroyed by an earthquake in 1837, and therefore every synagogue there today was built afterwards. Tiberius was only founded in the 1700s. As for Hebron there was terrible massacre there in 1929, and the survivors were forced to leave. As to Jerusalem, the Jews in the Old City were expelled in 1948, and did not return until 1967. The Western Wall isn’t a synagogue, and regardless, Jews were not permitted to pray there during Jordanian rule.
5. Prague. The Alte-Noi shul, the ‘Old New Shul,’ is perhaps the oldest remaining synagogue in Europe. It was built in 1290. It was the synagogue of the Maharal and its attic is associated with the legend of the Golem. Much like Amsterdam, it was closed during WWII when most of Prague’s Jews were killed. There is a rumour that a few old men managed to prayed there throughout the war. I don’t see how that could have been possible, but even if true, I don’t think we can consider that possibility, coupled with the decimation of the community, to reflect a continuous tradition of communal prayer.
4. Turkey. The Ahrida synagogue was built in 1694, replacing an earlier synagogue from the 1400s that was consumed in a fire . The area (Balat district) was once the home to Istanbul’s Jews, though such is not the case any longer. The synagogue was restored in 1992 , and it is used for special occasions such as weddings though it is no longer home to regular worship.
3. Tunisia. The famed El Ghirba Synagogue is said to date back to Temple times (over 2000 years ago). It continues to be the site of an annual Jewish pilgrimage to mark Lag La’omer. The truth is, though, that the synagogue in its current state was built in 1800’s. The synagogue may contain a stone from the Jerusalem Temple, preserved from an earlier synagogue, but the synagogue as a whole is certainly of more recent vintage.
2 India. The Paradesi synagogue in Cochin was built in 1568. It is still used by tourists, though it is no longer home to a local community to preserve its ancient traditions.
1. London. I suggested in my earlier post that the ‘winner’ of this contest is London’s Bevis Marks Synagogue. It was built in 1701 by Spanish & Portuguese Jews, and it has been used by that community ever since. It has survived migrations, real estate developments, the WWII German Blitz, and IRA bombings. At times it was used only on Shabbat, though it was always a place of prayer. Today it conducts a daily morning minyan, and regularly welcomes local Jewish residents, City workers, tourists, students and historic members.
After many conversations and online searches I now believe more confidently that Bevis Marks Synagogue is indeed the world’s longest running synagogue. It is both a world as well as a specifically Jewish treasure. It has been the home to the unique Spanish and Portuguese form of worship, without interruption, since it was established in 1701.
Sadly, Bevis Marks achieved this position as a result of the relentless and unfathomable worldwide persecutions of Jews. I recall those Jews and their Jewish communities as I write this post. Nearly every Jewish community in Europe, in North Africa, and in the Middle East – both Ashkenazic and Sephardic – has been uprooted at some time over the past 75 years. This upheaval has led to great loss of life and tradition, though it has also led to much innovation. Jews from different places throughout the world have found ways to both live and pray together. They’ve essentially created new, amalgamated minhagim, whether in Israel or in America. Jews do what they’ve always done, they find a way to carry on.
It is also important to recognise that Bevis Marks achieved this lofty status thanks to the stability of Great Britain, and to her centuries of tolerance and commitment to individual rights. I am proud to pray every Shabbat for the welfare of England’s royal family.
Bevis Marks Synagogue is the most authentic portal today to a lost Jewish world. At Bevis Marks you can experience prayer as it’s been done there for centuries, with preserved minhagim and melodies that are rarely found elsewhere in the world. I encourage every Jew to make it a point to visit Bevis Marks Synagogue for a Shabbat at least once in their lifetime. It will leave you both transfixed and transported. A markedly different spirit is felt at Bevis Marks, a synagogue which has been an uninterrupted home to Jews and their prayers for over three centuries. Visitors return to their own synagogues with new religious insights and often even as changed people.
Consider this an invitation. I and Bevis Marks Synagogue will be most pleased to warmly welcome you, to host you for a shabbat meal, and to make you feel at home. It is an experience you will never forget.
1701 is a date that every Jew should know.