18 Aug 2016

My First Year In London

It’s now been one year since I moved to London, and what a year it’s been! A new position, a new home, and a new culture all at once. While I miss friends, family and familiarity, I’m thrilled with the move and all that’s come along with it. I could write several posts about the cultural differences I’ve encountered, mostly humorous, but I’ll leave that to social commentators and sociologists. Instead, I’ll devote some words to things I know a bit more about, Bevis Marks and the Jewish community.

13.12.2015 Images from a double Induction Ceremony for the Spanish and Portuguese Jews Congregation, held at Bevis Marks Synagogue, London. (C) Blake Ezra Photography 2015.

First things first, though. I want to take this opportunity to thank everyone in the community from the bottom of my heart. I couldn’t have made it through this first year without all of your support, guidance, encouragement and love. Everyone welcomed me so warmly, as you do to all newcomers to Bevis Marks. Bevis is more of a family than anything else, and it instantly becomes a home or a home away from home for those who attend regularly or are even just passing through. I’m pleased with all that we’ve accomplished in such a relatively short time together. Though there is still much to do, I look forward to working on it together!


On the surface, England and America are much alike. However, beneath that surface most things are structurally quite different, from the medical system to the school system (three trimesters and only a 6 week summer break!). This is also true of the Jewish community. Most synagogues in England are administered by a central authority whether the United Synagogue, the Federation, or the S&P Sephardi Community. This is far different from the loose association many American Orthodox synagogues maintain with the OU or Young Israel movement. This centralised structure means that local synagogues receive outside support. Yet it also means that they don’t control their own finances or rabbinic hirings, though they surely have input into those matters. There are various drawbacks with this model, but there are also many benefits in terms of communal stability, unity, and financial efficiency.


Rabbis of the S&P Sephardi Community

Another major difference between England and America is that in England there is no strict separation between Church and State. This means that Jewish schools receive government support for their general studies programs. This greatly reduces the cost of Jewish education for those opting for Jewish State schools, although there are also Jewish private schools. There are the other added expenses associated with living in a Jewish community, such as inflated housing costs. However, the reduced educational costs mean that there is less pressure on every Jewish male to only pursue a career in law, medicine, finance or accounting. The result is a much more diverse career path within the community. This leads to the associated benefit of increased job satisfaction, with a greater range of skills available to community causes. It isn’t uncommon to meet a religious Jewish cab driver or musician.


The Gherkin and the Site of First Synagogue of the Resettlement (1657) on Creechurch Lane, Around the Corner from Bevis Marks Synagogue

My personal responsibilities are focused within the S&P Sephardi community. More specifically with Bevis Marks Synagogue and the Sephardi community’s Sunday School, Shaare Tikva. Bevis Marks is the UK’s oldest synagogue and as such it occupies a special place in the minds and hearts of Anglo Jewry. It is located in the City of London within where the city walls once stood. The City (Square Mile) is still the centre of England’s economic life, though it is no longer a residential area. I am one of only seven thousand City inhabitants, and I probably have the shortest commute of any City worker! Still, just minutes beyond the Square Mile and Bevis Marks are some of London’s most vibrant neighbourhoods, such as Shoreditch, Spitalfields, and Southwark, as well as Whitechapel and the Docklands. While most of the establishment Jewish community resides in Northwest London, I find more and more local Jews all the time. This includes City workers choosing to live closer to their offices, to those that simply grew up outside Northwest London and are content to live anywhere that the tube goes. This further includes expats, students, and hipsters. In addition, there are local Jews who remain in the area from when London’s East End was the heart of the Jewish community.

© Blake Ezra Photography 2016

Some of Our Fabulous Locals

This eclectic mix of Jewish residents creates a vibrant and rich culture at Bevis Marks – especially once you add all of the regularly attending historic members of the congregation, visitors to London, and City workers who frequent our weekday services and events. These diverse constituents necessitate a broad range of programming and services to best meet their individual needs, whether on weekdays, Friday nights or Shabbat mornings.


Yom Ha’atzamut Celebration in the Courtyard

Towards that end we offer daily morning minyan and breakfast, as well as Shabbat services, always followed by kiddush and socialising. We also run events and lectures to coincide with the end of the work day, and regularly host Friday night dinners. This past year we ran a particularly atmospheric ‘after dark’ tour of the synagogue, several Jewish holiday parties, and a multi-media lecture series on the history of Anglo Jewry. Our Succah is open to the public during lunchtime throughout the week of Succot. We’ve recently also begun to offer weekly shabbat meals to visitors looking to spend a Shabbat in the City and experience Bevis Marks. We are only a seven minute walk from the Tower of London! These meals can be easily booked through our website.

17.02.2016Tour of Bevis Marks Synagogue with Rabbi Shalom Morris. (C) Blake Ezra Photography 2016.

‘After Dark’ Behind the Scenes Tour

There is still a long way to go to make Bevis Marks a robust and self perpetuating community once again. However, I believe that this year we achieved the first step in that direction. We’ve put Bevis Marks back on the map of Anglo-Jewry. London’s Jews now know (surprisingly many didn’t!) that Bevis Marks is more than just a historic landmark, and a wedding venue, but that it is also a functioning synagogue with daily prayer services and with regularly occurring shiurim, lectures, and events.


Teaching in the Synagogue

The more I get to know the intricacies of the London’s Jewish community, the better I can position Bevis Marks to serve their needs and ensure the continuing relevance of Bevis Marks to contemporary Anglo Jewish life. We welcome Anglo and World Jewry to any of our services or events, and even to stay in the City for a Shabbat and enjoy our mesmerising and beautifully preserved Spanish and Portuguese services. We maintain relationships with several local hotels and we are pleased to host school Shabbatonim, Bar Mitzvahs, or even family weekend getaways.


Ezra Shabbaton at Bevis Marks Synagogue

We will soon celebrate the Jewish New Year, and Bevis Marks invites everyone to join us for our renowned High Holy Days services. We don’t charge for seats, so you are welcome to come for even just one of our services. That way you can attend your regular synagogue for the other days of the holiday season. We just ask that you book with us in advance, and consider making a donation to support our efforts. You won’t be disappointed! As for me, I still consider this past Kal Nidre at Bevis to be the highlight of my year. Personally speaking, learning to lead the various parts of our historic Portuguese service has been a truly humbling and profoundly moving experience for me.

© Blake Ezra Photography 2016

Summer BBQ in Bevis Marks Courtyard

With Tisha B’Ab behind us, I have now completed the full year cycle of London and Bevis Marks. I’ve learned a lot about the natural ebb and flow of local City life, and also about the different ways that we can capitalise on the heritage and space of Bevis Marks. We’ve begun to make the most of the synagogue’s various, unique spaces including the synagogue itself, its adjoining chic hall, and especially its lovely hidden courtyard over this past summer. I even led an evening walking tour of the area to make the most of the entire neighbourhood’s historic significance, home to Anglo Jewry for a Millennia. With the help of G-d, we are working to ensure that it will continue to be so for many years to come! Please join us at Bevis Marks. By so doing, you will help us to ensure that all of our aspirations for the future of Bevis Marks and Anglo Jewry come true!


Bevis Marks Neighbourhood Walking Tour – ‘One Thousand Years in One Mile’