Shul Crawl: Bevis Marks Synagogue

Two Oxford University students have set out on an ambitious project to review every synagogue in Britain. Danny Kessler and Joshua Felberg will make light-hearted assessments of hundreds of communities, based on the standard of the kiddush, the rabbi's sermon, decorum, and "peculiar customs".

By Danny Kessler a..., September 28, 2011

Hidden far below the towering buildings of the City of London is Bevis Marks, founded in 1701.

It sits as a monument to British Jewry as it once was, retaining the grandeur of generations past.

The interior has ornately carved wooden pews for the congregation, but with reserved boxes for the wardens, presidents, choir and Sir Moses Montifiore (who died in 1885).

On careful examination one can see seats marked with names owned by families dating back centuries. Regularly a person had been allocated just a few inches crammed against an oak armrest.

Tall wax candles are still used around the sanctuary. The centre piece is the decorated Ark, which houses some 20 Torah scrolls.

The Friday night service was attended by around 15 people with the prayers said according to the Sephardic custom of the Spanish and Portuguese community.

The service was taken by a lay member who regularly called out page numbers from the special S&P siddur.

Bevis Marks is a synagogue which does not give up on tradition lightly. The service leader wears a top hat and Shacharit was announced as starting "a half after eight" the following morning.

Following the service a light meal was provided by the community. We were told proudly that Bevis Marks is the only synagogue in the country with a sit-down dinner after its Friday night service.

Many of the Shabbat songs are unique to the S&P community, including one before grace after meals, "Bendigamos", which is sung cheerfully in Ladino.

The dinner illustrates the hospitality of what is a very warm community - the food was delicious and the atmosphere was immensely friendly.

The attendees were young, ranging between their 20s and 30s.

The synagogue members recounted many of the famous Jews to have prayed there, from the aforementioned Sir Moses Montefiore to Benjamin Disraeli.

Bevis Marks has produced immensely important individuals and it is very proud of the fact.

Bevis is without parallel in Britain and deserves a visit from anyone who is interested in the history of British Jewry. Tourists are always welcome and the community always puts on a good show. If you are Sephardi this synagogue will be full of nostalgia for the glory days before the expulsion from Spain, and if you're Ashkenazi you'll go to see how the other half live.

Last updated: 9:24am, October 3 2011