London rejects 48-story skyscraper threatening UK’s oldest synagogue

Bevis Marks is the only synagogue in Europe that has been operational for 300 years, serving the Sephardi descendants of Iberian Jews who fled.

 LONDON’S BEVIS Marks Synagogue, founded in 1701 by crypto-Jews who had fled from Spain and Portugal via the Netherlands, is considered British Jewry’s cathedral house  of prayer with the pomp of circumstance. The synagogue is illuminated by 240 candles placed in its enormous brass chandeliers. (photo credit: BEVIS MARKS SYNAGOGUE HERITAGE FOUNDATION)
LONDON’S BEVIS Marks Synagogue, founded in 1701 by crypto-Jews who had fled from Spain and Portugal via the Netherlands, is considered British Jewry’s cathedral house of prayer with the pomp of circumstance. The synagogue is illuminated by 240 candles placed in its enormous brass chandeliers.
(photo credit: BEVIS MARKS SYNAGOGUE HERITAGE FOUNDATION)

It is not Jerusalem balancing history and progress. Plans to build a 48-story skyscraper on London’s Bury Street to the south of Bevis Marks Synagogue, dating from 1701 and the oldest Jewish house of worship in continuous use in Britain, were rejected recently.

The October 5 vote by the City of London Corporation Planning Committee came to 14-7. But a planned 21-story tower on nearby Creechurch Lane that would also overshadow the landmark Spanish and Portuguese congregation is still under consideration.

“The special status of Bevis Marks has been recognized by the Planning Committee and common sense has prevailed,” Dame Helen Hyde, chair of the Foundation for Jewish Heritage, said in a statement. “We hope the committee will make the same decision with the second application which is equally unacceptable.”

Bevis Marks, a Grade I historic site in Britain and the only synagogue in Europe that has held regular services continuously for more than 300 years, today continues to serve the Sephardi descendants of the persecuted Portuguese and Spanish Jews who found refuge in England following the rise to power of Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), who in 1656 welcomed Jews back to the country from which they were expelled by King Edward I in 1290. In its design and decoration, the house of worship has been heavily influenced by Amsterdam’s Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, which opened 26 years earlier. Apart from being retrofitted with electric lighting in 1929, Bevis Marks is largely unchanged from three centuries ago. The synagogue continues to be lit by 240 candles in massive brass chandeliers, making the issue of the availability of natural light especially sensitive.

The rejected skyscraper would have entailed the “demolition of existing building and construction of a new building comprising 2 basement levels (plus 2 mezzanines) and ground floor plus 48 upper stories for office use, flexible retail/café use, publicly accessible internal amenity space and community space; a new pedestrian route and new and improved Public Realm; ancillary basement cycle parking, servicing and plant,” according to the London-based architectural blog Dezeen.com.

 LONDON’S BEVIS Marks Synagogue, founded in 1701 by crypto-Jews who had fled from Spain and Portugal via the Netherlands, is considered British Jewry’s cathedral house of prayer with the pomp of circumstance. The synagogue is illuminated by 240 candles placed in its enormous brass chandeliers.  (credit: BEVIS MARKS SYNAGOGUE HERITAGE FOUNDATION) LONDON’S BEVIS Marks Synagogue, founded in 1701 by crypto-Jews who had fled from Spain and Portugal via the Netherlands, is considered British Jewry’s cathedral house of prayer with the pomp of circumstance. The synagogue is illuminated by 240 candles placed in its enormous brass chandeliers. (credit: BEVIS MARKS SYNAGOGUE HERITAGE FOUNDATION)

Critics protested to the committee session that if the two planned high-rises were built in the City of London financial district not far from the Liverpool Street Station, a key transit junction on the Elizabeth Line planned to open here in 2022, they – along with existing buildings – would block sunlight to the synagogue for all but around an hour a day, affecting religious observance and other synagogue functions. Being in all but permanent shadow would also impair Bevis Marks’ role as a tourist attraction and the synagogue of the Square Mile.

The meeting heard objections from Sarah Sackman and the synagogue’s Rabbi Shalom Morris, who raised concerns the tower would block out sunlight and make worship difficult.

“Bevis Marks is where I got married. I speak alongside thousands of British Jews who are concerned about this application,” said Sackman, a planning lawyer speaking in a personal capacity.

 LONDON’S BEVIS Marks Synagogue, founded in 1701 by crypto-Jews who had fled from Spain and Portugal via the Netherlands, is considered British Jewry’s cathedral house of prayer with the pomp of circumstance. The synagogue is illuminated by 240 candles placed in its enormous brass chandeliers.  (credit: BEVIS MARKS SYNAGOGUE HERITAGE FOUNDATION) LONDON’S BEVIS Marks Synagogue, founded in 1701 by crypto-Jews who had fled from Spain and Portugal via the Netherlands, is considered British Jewry’s cathedral house of prayer with the pomp of circumstance. The synagogue is illuminated by 240 candles placed in its enormous brass chandeliers. (credit: BEVIS MARKS SYNAGOGUE HERITAGE FOUNDATION)

“The true extent of the harm to Bevis Marks is being missed. Considered both individually and cumulatively, the impact of this scheme is the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”

RABBI MORRIS added: “The only reason I’m speaking to you today is because the Jewish community believes the very future of Bevis Marks, our cathedral synagogue, is at risk if you approve this scheme. That’s not hyperbole, or theatrics. Our actual lived experience of the place informs our keen awareness that placing a 48-story tower to our southern exposure will cause us harm.”

He added: “It will diminish the spiritually uplifting and practically necessary light that filters into the synagogue… There’s jpost.com/jerusalem-report/londons-jews-split-into-east-and-west-now-theyve-reconciled-684704 Bevis Marks will be harmed by this scheme that I’m shocked we’re even having this meeting, but here we are.”

Among the 1,800 comments submitted about the Bury Street plan were concerns the excavation could cause structural damage to the historic building.

Protesters including the historian Sir Simon Schama lent their voices to the campaign asking, “High-rise office buildings would never be considered four miles away from St. Paul’s Cathedral, so why should it be acceptable here?”

UK Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis and president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews Marie van der Zyl, voiced their objections to the project. The Sephardic Jewish Brotherhood of America wrote to the British Ambassador in Washington, DC, Dame Karen Pierce, calling the proposed building “a shocking disregard for the needs and historic rights of the Sephardic Jewish community.”

Britain’s heir to the throne, Prince Charles, also supported the campaign to cancel the tower.

In 2019, the synagogue received a £2.8 million grant from the UK’s National Heritage Lottery Fund for “vital restoration work and conservation for its collections” so that they can be displayed in a new section of the synagogue complex. In February, Bevis Marks received £497,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund to kick-start the renovation and other work that had been hampered over the previous year by the pandemic.

 PLANS TO build a 48-story skyscraper on Bury Street immediately to the south of Bevis Marks in London’s financial district, called The City, were rejected last month by a vote by the City of London Corporation Planning Committee. But a planned 21-story tower on nearby Creechurch  Lane that would  (credit: BEVIS MARKS SYNAGOGUE HERITAGE FOUNDATION) PLANS TO build a 48-story skyscraper on Bury Street immediately to the south of Bevis Marks in London’s financial district, called The City, were rejected last month by a vote by the City of London Corporation Planning Committee. But a planned 21-story tower on nearby Creechurch Lane that would (credit: BEVIS MARKS SYNAGOGUE HERITAGE FOUNDATION)

The work is being overseen by the Bevis Marks Synagogue Heritage Foundation, which was established in 2019 – with Prince Charles as its patron.

Bevis Marks was unscathed by World War I and the Nazi Germany air force Luftwaffe’s 1940-1941 Blitz that pulverized the nearby East End where many London Jews lived at the time. In 1992, the building was severely damaged by an IRA bomb targeting the nearby Baltic Exchange that caused vast damage to the surrounding historic neighborhood. The restored synagogue was damaged by a second IRA bomb in 1993.