For more 300 years, Bevis Marks Synagogue in the City of London has been a beacon of continuity. When war silenced other synagogues across Europe, and even when the bombs fell during the Blitz, the voice of prayer reverberated around Bevis Marks.
But although its congregation may not currently be able to gather, its minister Rabbi Shalom Morris is maintaining a tradition by praying there daily.
“It was concerning to us [as] Bevis Marks has not closed in over 300 years,” said the S & P Sephardi Community senior rabbi, Joseph Dweck. “Rabbi Morris is holding vigil.”
And the Bevis Marks minister has also been posting regular videos about the country’s oldest synagogue, keeping it open in virtual space. “He’s doing some wonderful videos — telling the history, showing various aspects of it,” Rabbi Dweck reported.
“He did one the other day where he showed siddurim with every monarch from the opening in 1701.”
When he arrived in the UK six years ago, Rabbi Dweck was already ahead of most other rabbis here in his use of social media to reach people. Now his colleagues have turned to technology too.
Rabbi Israel Elia of Lauderdale Road broadcasts daily morning prayers. Rabbi Daniel Kada communicates with his Wembley congregants via WhatsApp and his nightly shiurim have attracted more than 100 followers.
“It has been most gratifying watching the community come together at these difficult times,” Rabbi Kada said. “Technology has enabled us to stay together and unite as one.
“The response of the community to online lectures and events has been so positive that I think it will be difficult to get people to come to lectures in person once the world returns to normal.”
On Sunday, the rabbis joined forces for an online guide to running a Seder. “We realise that people will be doing it on their own who aren’t used to it,” Rabbi Dweck said.
He himself has increased his online presence with a nightly class accessible on three platforms — Facebook, Instagram and Zoom. And on Friday evenings, three quarters of an hour before candle-lighting, he has led a Kabbalat Shabbat service, including the Hashkamah, the memorial prayer, and a special prayer in response to the times.
He has also conducted his first Zoom barmitvzah and first Zoom shivah.
“It has been inspiring in the sense that people are coming together in every way that we can — but also difficult in the fact that we can’t celebrate or grieve together in the way we normally would.”
Along with the trustees, the rabbis have been ringing around congregants to offer support — there are some 450 over the age of 70. Packages of matzah and wine have gone out for Pesach and medicines fetched for those unable to get out.
“Older members have told me: ‘We’ve been through the Blitz, we’ve been through dire situations, but we have never, ever seen anything like this’,” Rabbi Dweck noted.
“Even though times were extremely difficult, they had each other. The isolation is something they have never really experienced.
“So it is vital we connect in every way that is open to us.”
It may be a while before the SPSC will be able to use its new Shabbat prayerbook communally — the book can be bought and used at home but last month’s launch had to be postponed. However, one of the “silver linings” of the crisis had been the collective response of rabbis, lay leaders, staff and congregants.
“The community has come together.”