Interior of Bevis Marks Synagogue
This is a photograph of the interior of the Bevis Marks Synagogue in London.
The seat on the left beneath the candelabra was the seat of Sir Moses Montefiore, who was a leading member of the synagogue in the nineteenth century. Today this seat is marked with a velvet ribbon and is reserved for very distinguished people.
In the seventeenth century, during the rule of Oliver Cromwell, Jews from Spain and Portugal returned to England after an absence of more than 300 years. In 1657, a house was leased in the City of London and converted into a synagogue. The congregation thrived throughout the Restoration (the restoration of the English monarchy after Cromwell’s rule), and in 1699 a nearby site was obtained for the building of a new synagogue in a secluded courtyard off a street called Bevis Marks. The building contract was given to a Quaker named Joseph Avis, who, according to Quaker tradition, refused to take financial gain from building a house of God and returned whatever profit he had made to the congregation. It is said that Princess Anne, later to become queen, presented an oak beam from one of the Royal Navy ships to be incorporated in the roof. The congregation of the Great Synagogue in Amsterdam donated the largest of the synagogue’s seven chandeliers.
The synagogue is still an active community, situated in the City of London. Above the entrance to the synagogue is carved in Hebrew: “Kahal Kadosh Sha’ar HaShamayim” (Holy Congregation, the Gates of Heaven) and the date of its establishment in 1701. The entrance has heavy dark doors with the original iron locks. The wooden Ark is of a classical style and is said to have been influenced by the famous London architect Christopher Wren. The synagogue has many of its original decorations and furnishings including wooden benches and candelabras that still hold candles on special occasions. The design of the building is based on Jewish symbolism with twelve pillars representing the twelve tribes holding the women’s section, ten large brass candlesticks representing the Ten Commandments, and seven hanging candelabras representing the seven days of creation.
Today, the traditions of this ancient synagogue are still preserved in this historical site, although only a few descendants of the original Sephardi community attend the services, as most of the Jewish population of London migrated to the north of the city.
Jewish History teachers can use the resource when learning about the Sephardi community in London, the history of the Bevis Marks Synagogue, or the life of Moses Montefiore.
Jewish Studies teachers can use the resource to learn about the synagogue.
What is your initial impression of the photograph?
Describe what you see in the photograph (background, objects, additional items of interest, etc).
Reading Between the Lines
What is this place used for?
When do you think the synagogue was built?
What can be learned about the location and time period of the photograph?
Why do you think that Montefiore’s seat is roped off?
How is Sir Moses Montefiore connected to this photograph?
Give a brief explanation of the London Sephardi community.
Where are the origins of this community?
What is the history of this community in London?
Which community do you belong to?
Do you have any connection to the Sephardi community?
Suggest another way for a synagogue to honour an important person such as Montefiore.