When David Ottolenghi arrived in London he sought a community where the rituals would be as familiar to him as the Portuguese rite was for him in Livorno. The Bevis Marks congregation was his natural choice and he settled into dwellings close to the synagogue in Woolpack Alley and Cutler Street. It has been the family synsgogue ever since.
Situated in the City of London, just off the ancient thoroughfare of Bevis Marks, the synagogue, which was opened in 1701, stands in a secluded courtyard once approached through a stone archway with wrought-iron gates.
“Kahal Kadosh Shaar Shamaim”, (קהל קדוש שער שמיים) which means “Holy Congregation Gates of Heaven” and expresses the gratitude for the safe refuge that those first congregants felt they had found in the City of London.
Redevelopment in the City of London has seen the buildings on Bevis Marks completely replaced and the entrance to the courtyard now looks like this, incorporating the stone header of the original archway
The courtyard is a place of serenity, now surrounded by office buildings, where once stood the congregation’s school, almshouse and orphanage. The Synagogue is a Grade I listed building and is the only synagogue in Europe that has held regular services continuously for over 300 years.
The Ark at the eastern end of the synagogue is in the “reredos” style of church altar screens, thought to follow the designs of Sir Christopher Wren who, at the time, was overseeing rebuilding of the City of London after the Great Fire of 1666. The doors of the Ark are of oak but with mahogany graining and the interior is upholstered in Spanish gilded leather. Inside the Ark reside the “Sifrei Torah” the Scrolls of the Law and their vestments and ornaments.
Rows of oak backless benches at the rear, are the original seats brought from the Cree Church Lane house of worship and are thought to be the only remaining specimens of “Cromwellian Benches”. The boys of the synagogue school sat, to the right of the Wardens’ pew, and boys from the orphanage sat on the left.
Except for some minor additions, such as the little doors to the seats of the Haham (the Sephardi chief rabbi), to those of the rabbi’s assistants and to the Banca – the Warden’s box in 1787, the seat of Sir Moses Montefiore, which was fitted with arm and foot rests, the choir stalls installed at the rear of the raised reading desk in 1830, and electric lighting fitted in 1929, the synagogue remains virtually unchanged.
The building survived the two World Wars, when much of the adjacent city suffered in the “Blitz” and subsequent aerial bombing by the Nazi Luftwaffe, but in 1992 it was badly damaged by IRA bombs targeting the commercial and financial institutions of the city, the Baltic Exchange among others. Repairs took four months and were no sooner finished when a second IRA outrage damaged the building again, but fortunately to a lesser extent. Those repairs which were not covered by insurance were financed by private donations and a gift from the Corporation of the City of London.
The migration of the Jewish community from inner city areas which started in the late 19th century, left the regular Bevis Marks congregation sadly depleted. At the same time many of the old Spanish and Portuguese family names began to disappear as they adopted more anglicized names, Martinez for example became Martin, Diaz became Dyas or Dyson. There was an influx of Jews of oriental communities of North Africa and the Middle East that boosted the congregation and Bevis Marks became the “cathedral” synagogue of British Jewry where numerous celebrations have been held such as the centenaries of Jewish resettlement in Britain and the 350th anniversary of the synagogue, special services .marking the end of the first world war as well as anniversaries of D-Day and VE Day of the second world war. These celebrations have been attended by the mayors and lord mayors of London, leading politicians, senior members of the police, the armed forces and the Royal Family.
Bevis Marks is now a tourist attraction, welcoming visitors from far and wide at services and on weekday tours. The glowing candlelight makes it a romantic and popular choice for weddings and an atmospheric concert venue. The increasing numbers of Jews working in the City of London and its environs, have afforded the opportunity for Bevis Marks to take on a new role of “the Synagogue in the Square Mile”.
In 2019 the synagogue received a £2.9million grant from the UK Lottery for conservation work and HRH Price Charles, Prince of Wales took on the chair of the appeal to develop the synagogue as a heritage site.
Today, the descendants of the original Spanish and Portuguese families are few but the services and traditions have been maintained, parts of the services and communal notices that are not in Hebrew are still conducted in Portuguese. A book describing the rituals of the community the “Minhagim” and the “Mitzvot” was written by G.H. Whitehill a former elder of the congregation and Treasurer of the Society of Heshaim, is reproduced elsewhere on this website (Heshaim is a transliteration of “Etz Hahaim” (עץ החיים) an allusion to the Torah)