LONDON — The oldest synagogue in Britain marked its 300th birthday with a special Shabbat celebration the weekend before Rosh Hashanah and its leaders are hoping to use the festivities — as well as a new building that will serve as a kosher bistro beginning this week — to attract more visitors.
London's Bevis Marks Synagogue was first dedicated the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah 5462 — according to the secular calendar, Sept. 30, 1701.
The 300th birthday celebration was the first of a series of events that will include concerts, lectures, dinners and a museum exhibit, culminating in a daylong celebration Dec. 5.
In addition, a special commemorative stamp was issued.
Bevis Marks has an illustrious history. It is the only synagogue in Britain designated a Grade I-listed building by English Heritage, placing it among the country's most important monuments.
Famous past congregants include Sir Moses Montefiore, the Victorian-era philanthropist who traveled to Ottoman-ruled Palestine several times and established a hospital in Jerusalem.
A future prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, was circumcised at Bevis Marks in 1804, but his father, Isaac D'Israeli, left the congregation in anger in 1817 after a dispute over a fine and then had Benjamin baptized.
The family converted to Christianity, but Benjamin Disraeli remained a supporter of Jews throughout his life — and the Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck once admiringly called him "the crafty old Jew."
Jews first came to Britain in 1066, at the invitation of William the Conqueror but were expelled in 1290 by Edward I.
For more than 350 years after, Jews were barred from settling in England. But when Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell overthrew the monarchy in 1649, Jews saw an opportunity to return.
In 1655, the rabbi of Amsterdam's Portuguese Jewish community petitioned Cromwell to allow Jews to settle in England.
The sympathetic Lord Protector, as Cromwell styled himself, convened a special conference of clergy, merchants and judges to consider the question, but dissolved it when it looked as if the conferees were going to vote against readmission.
Taking the lack of reply for a yes, Sephardim began to trickle back into England, and by 1657 they had leased a house in the City of London, the small district in the heart of the capital, to use as a synagogue.
A legal case fought that year by Antonio Robles, who was a Converso — a Jew who professed Christianity following the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal — established the legal right of Jews to live in England.
By 1699, the Spanish and Portuguese Jews Congregation was in a position to build a synagogue of its own — and it bought property on Bevis Marks Street.
The synagogue opened in 1701. built at cost by a Quaker who refused to make a profit on the construction of a house of worship.
The Great Synagogue in Amsterdam, which had been established 25 years before, donated a chandelier that is still in use today.
According to tradition, the future Queen Anne presented an oak beam that is part of the roof.
The current rabbi at Bevis Marks, Abraham Levy, describes the synagogue as "probably the only place in Europe where Jewish worship has continued uninterrupted for 300 years."
Despite its long history, community leaders admit that the synagogue is in search of a new mission. Its neighborhood where it is located was once home to a large Jewish community, but today is more known as a financial center.
With few Jews living in the area and Ashkenazi Jews in the majority in England, Bevis Marks' Sephardi leaders have stated, "It has been clear for almost a century that Bevis Marks is not sustainable as a family or local community synagogue."
For now, the synagogue hosts morning prayers for some of the Jewish professionals who work in London's financial district. Leaders hope to use Bevis Marks' unique history and central location to turn it into the "cathedral synagogue" of Anglo Jewry, the site where major community occasions are celebrated.