Chief Rabbi backs Bevis Marks campaign

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Chief Rabbi backs Bevis Marks campaign

EXCLUSIVE: Sir Ephraim Mirvis tells Lord Mayor of London that a tower block overshadowing 17th century synagogue would be a 'tragic irony'

Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist

Lord Rothschild was hailed for “inspiring” nationwide events marking the centenary of the Balfour Declaration at Bevis Marks Synagogue. Picture: Blake Ezra
Lord Rothschild was hailed for “inspiring” nationwide events marking the centenary of the Balfour Declaration at Bevis Marks Synagogue. Picture: Blake Ezra

Chief Rabbi Sir Ephraim Mirvis has made a direct appeal to protect Bevis Marks Synagogue, as it was revealed that almost 1,000 people had objected to renewed proposals for a 45-storey tower block which could overshadow the historic building.

In a strongly worded letter to the Lord Mayor of London, Alderman Professor Michael Raymond Mainelli, the chief rabbi says he is “saddened” by having to write a second objection to planning proposals tabled with the Corporation of the City of London. He previously wrote to the lord mayor’s predecessor, Alderman William Russell.

Bevis Marks, the oldest synagogue in Britain in continuous use, is under threat from a proposed development “on the doorstep of the synagogue”, the chief rabbi says. With “very limited changes” to the previous proposal, the new tower block “has the potential to significantly affect the natural light that can reach the building. This will, in turn, disrupt prayers taking place inside, and the use of the courtyard outside. It would have a notable impact on the atmosphere that Bevis Marks is so famed for around the Jewish world, to the detriment of those worshipping there.”

Sir Ephraim’s letter adds that the granting of the proposal “would be a regrettable development with implications for rights of religious practice, precisely in the place where Jews first enjoyed these rights in England following the 17th century resettlement. That would be a tragic irony.”

The chief rabbi’s letter — sent at the end of last week — coincides with hundred of public comments recorded by the planning committee of the Corporation of the City of London, which asked for comments to aid its consultation process.

By May 21, the City’s website showed, more than 1,000 public comments had been received — 986 of which were objections to the proposed development. This figure is rising hourly. To date, only 50 people have publicly supported the development.

The objections came from many people who are members of Bevis Marks, and also from non-Sephardi members of the Jewish community, who expressed anxiety about the impact on the oldest synagogue in Britain.

Simon Rozas, writing from north-west London, said: “I work near the building. Most City workers do not realise the historical and current importance of the adjacent synagogue to European history of the Jews, particularly the refugees from Spain and Portugal. It is similar in importance to the Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam, or the Altneu in Prague. No planning authority would even consider putting a high rise near those buildings, or near St Paul’s Cathedral,  St Peter’s or Agia Sophia.

“No social remedies, cafes or restoring other buildings could fix the damage done to the synagogue surroundings. The house relies on already scarce natural light, and blocking it off completely with high rises makes it look like a relic rather than the living historical building in its surroundings. Allowing this to proceed would be an awful signal to the community and do irreparable damage to the site”.

There were also objections from Bevis Marks supporters outside Britain, including Israel and America. One comment came from Gaston Maya, president of the Latin American Sephardic Federation.

Writing from Mexico City, where he says the Federation represents 310,000 people, Mr Maya says: “The application is not in keeping with a Grade I-listed place of worship. The 17th-century Bevis Marks synagogue and its soon to open education centre is the most important Jewish site in England, and a jewel in the crown of world Jewish heritage, and the Sephardi tradition.”

This week it was confirmed that King Charles III is to retain his patronage of the Bevis Marks Synagogue Heritage Foundation.

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