OPINION: Building bridges: Historic visit to Bevis Marks by Spanish and Portuguese ambassadors

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OPINION: Building bridges: Historic visit to Bevis Marks by Spanish and Portuguese ambassadors

David Mendoza-Wolfson, whose ancestor married in the shul in 1730, reflects on a powerful opportunity to explore our heritage and strengthen international ties

Rabbi Joseph Dweck, HE José Pascual Marco Ambassador of Spain, HE Nuno Brito Ambassador of Portugal, BoD Vice-President David Mendoza-Wolfson
Rabbi Joseph Dweck, HE José Pascual Marco Ambassador of Spain, HE Nuno Brito Ambassador of Portugal, BoD Vice-President David Mendoza-Wolfson

Last week, I had the honour of accompanying the Ambassadors of Spain and Portugal, Their Excellencies José Pascual Marco and Nuno Brito, on a tour of Bevis Marks Synagogue, led by Rabbi Joseph Dweck of the S&P Sephardi Community.

No Spanish or Portuguese Ambassador had visited the synagogue before, and as a descendant of some early members of Bevis Marks– my ancestor Aaron Mendoza married there in 1730, I was especially moved by this historic occasion.

A ceremony at the Spanish and Portuguese Jews Congregation, at Bevis Marks Synagogue, London in 2015
(C) Blake Ezra Photography 2015.

The synagogue is a symbol of the community’s resilience, having been built by Jews who were forced to flee the Iberian Peninsula centuries ago. As my ancestors number among those, I feel a sense of responsibility to honour their legacy in the work I do for the Board of Deputies of British Jews. The Board has its origins in the Spanish and Portuguese community, having been established in 1760 when a group of representatives, or “Deputados,” paid homage to George III upon his accession to the throne.

During the tour, Rabbi Dweck showcased the community’s heritage, which is still evident in the use of Judeo-Spanish for aliyot (the calling of congregants up to the Torah), as well as the use of Portuguese and Ladino in the liturgy. Rabbi Dweck also brought our attention to the benches in the synagogue, which have remained unchanged since the site opened in 1701.

Both ambassadors shared their experiences of working with Jewish communities in their countries and stressed the importance of their relationship with the Board.

RANXP5 BEVIS MARKS SYNAGOGUE, 1889. Reimagined by Gibon. Classic art with a modern twist reimagined

The Portuguese Ambassador spoke of his visit to the Great Synagogue in Amsterdam and the similarities between the two buildings (Bevis Marks is modelled on the Dutch Esnoga), while the Spanish Ambassador asked Rabbi Dweck about Spinoza, having long had a personal interest in the Jewish philosopher.

Upstairs, we examined the names of the historical trustees of Bevis Marks. Ambassador Brito was delighted to see the name de Britto on the roll, while his Spanish counterpart remarked on familiar surnames that were personal to him. The list includes a fair few ‘Mendozas’ too.

This tour is just one of many ways the Board of Deputies is working to engage with London’s diplomatic community and strengthen international ties. Our community is rich in cultural diversity — our families have connections with countries around the globe. While we have, understandably, often focused on the tragedies that have befallen our people, we should also celebrate the incredible, rich and diverse history of our community and keep front of mind what we can do to reinvigorate our connections with the lands of our past.

As Chair of the Board’s International Division, creating a programme of cultural engagement is one of my top priorities. That is why I am working on several projects to highlight the histories and ancestral connections of our communities, including a planned twinning project that will bring together synagogues from different denominations in the UK and Germany.

For me, the opportunity to explore a vital part of my community’s heritage with representatives of two countries that acknowledge the need for exploring a challenging part of their own histories, was incredibly powerful. It is with gratitude that I thank the ambassadors for helping to strengthen the bonds between us and to Rabbi Dweck, the S&P Sephardi Community, and the officers at Bevis Marks for making the visit possible.

This visit was a reminder of the enduring ties between our community and the countries and cultures from which they emanated. The synagogue stands testament to the strength and resilience of the Jewish people, which has endured, evolved and accomplished so much through the struggles of many centuries to remain the vibrant community the Board represents today.

  • David Mendoza-Wolfson is Senior Vice President of the Board of Deputies
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