Borderline Views: Remembering Montefiore in the UK

The notion of hakarot hatov to governments and states within which Jews live as free and equal citizens is of great importance.

Motefiore synagogue 311 (photo credit: David Newman)
Motefiore synagogue 311
(photo credit: David Newman)
If you go down to Ramsgate today, you’re in for a big surprise. Because in this small coastal town in the south east of England, with no Jewish community of its own and far from the major Jewish centers of London and Manchester, you will see bus loads of haredim arriving en masse.
Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews will make their way to the private, secluded mausoleum of Moses Montefiore on the day of his yartzheit (16th Av) to pray at his grave and hold prayer services in the beautiful small synagogue next to the gravesite.
Set aside in a walled park, it stands alone; there is no other Jewish cemetery on the site, although a small disused cemetery elsewhere in Ramsgate attests to a now defunct Jewish community which used to exist in this coastal resort.
And although the site is owned and maintained by the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish community, with its headquarters at the beautiful Bevis Marks synagogue in London, it is the haredi Ashkenazic community which has rediscovered the Montefiore burial site over the past two decades, and have made this into the major site of orthodox pilgrimage in the UK.
It is also a convenient date for the haredi communities, just one week after Tisha Be’av, when they take some time for short vacations – a day trip to the coast with their children, to take in the natural landscape and the sea and, at the same, time visit and pray at a gravesite and a synagogue.
It is not uncommon at this time of year to see small groups of ultra-religious families visiting the coastal towns of Southern England – an annual anthropological experience for many of the local residents, for whom Jews are nothing more than mythical figures written about in books and in history.
When asked why they have adopted the grave of this famous Sephardic philanthropist, they will tell you the purpose of the annual pilgrimage is to express their gratitude (hakaraot hatov) to this famous Orthodox Jew who stood up for the rights of his brethren throughout the world, and who attained international status at a time when emancipation was still a futuristic dream.
IN A world where the haredi community has undergone unimagined demographic growth, the notion of hakarot hatov to those governments and states within which they live as free and equal citizens is of great importance. The US, in particular, has become known as Malkhut shel Chesed – the kingdom of kindness – and is much more popular among these communities than the state of Israel, which they perceive as a secular state whose intention is to trample on the full and free exercise of their religious rights. For the haredi community in the UK, Moses Montefiore represents all that is good about their status within Western democracies, without which they would not have been able to achieve their present status as an accepted minority.
The Bevis Marks Synagogue in London, one of the oldest and most beautiful in Europe, has a roped-off seat at the front.
This was Montefiore’s private pew, and absolutely no one is allowed to sit on it.
The most recent exception was on the 350th anniversary of the return of Jews to Britain under Menasseh ben Israel (following their expulsion 300 years previously).
For this special occasion, the prime minister of Britain, Tony Blair, was allowed to sit in Montefiore’s seat, a privilege denied even the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom.
There has been talk of reinterring Montefiore’s remains in Israel, perhaps close to his famous windmill and chariot, made famous in Yehoram Gaon’s song dedicated to him in the 1970s movie “I am a Jerusalemite” (“Ani Yerushalmi”). At the time, in the 1960s, Rabbi Ovadiya Yosef, the supreme Sephardic halachic authority, ruled that it was permissible to bring the remains of this “prince” of the Jewish people to Israel, but one of the leading halachic authorities of the time, Ashkenazic Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, ruled against the transfer, arguing that this would be a desecration of the dead, so the situation remained unchanged.
Sir Moses Montefiore’s Deed of Foundation of 1866, together with his will of 1882 and its codicils, provided for the future transfer of the assets and administration of the Ramsgate Synagogue to the Board of Elders of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews’ Congregation, London. In later years, the Spanish and Portuguese communities have themselves hinted that they may be prepared to have the mausoleum removed to Israel, given the fact that this remote site sits on prime coastal real estate, but it is now the haredi (Ashkenazic) community which, having adopted his gravesite for their annual pilgrimage (and monthly rosh chodesh services), objects to this and have ensured that the site is registered as a national heritage.
The Montefiore Endowment currently owns and maintains the Montefiore Synagogue and Mausoleum, together with collections of manuscripts, books, artifacts, ritual textiles and ritual silver, much of which is not on public display because of its great value. It also administers and funds the Judith Lady Montefiore College, which was moved from Ramsgate to London in the 1960s. Much of its funds go toward supporting Jewish education, with a strong focus on the religious and orthodox communities and yeshivot in London and Manchester.
So if by chance you are on the south coast of England today, in areas untouched by last week’s urban riots, take some time to visit the Montefiore grave and synagogue in Ramsgate. This is the one day of the year when you won’t have a problem finding the site – just look for the buses offloading their ultra-religious passengers. It is a remarkable transformation of a site which, for decades, was hardly ever visited except by the chance Jewish traveler who knew of its existence.
It is a fitting, albeit strange, tribute to a global philanthropist, diplomat and defender of the Jewish people from a bygone era.
The writer is Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben Gurion University. The opinions expressed are his alone.