City of London Rejects Skyscraper That Threatened U.K.’s Oldest Shul

The interior of Bevis Marks and its famous chandeliers. (Deror Avi)

After months of protest by the Jewish community, historians, politicians and others, City of London councilors on the Corporation’s Planning and Transportation committee voted 14-7 to reject plans for a 48-story tower that threated the future of the United Kingdom’s oldest continuously operating shul.

Despite planning officers recommending that this building and another new 21-story office block be built, the first development was rejected after more than 1,700 complaints were lodged with the City of London Corporation, including hundreds from people abroad. People not only protested the hindrances the building would place on the ability to conduct religious services, but the city’s disregard for a house of worship of great history and renowned beauty in order to build another massive office tower, according to the Evening Standard.

John Comaroff, a Jewish historian in Harvard, wrote, “I write in outrage at the news that the Bevis Marks Synagogue is to be put at risk by development initiatives sanctioned by the City of London Corporation.

“By giving permission for the construction of high rise structures abutting this historic building – one of critical significance not just to the British Jewish Community and World Jewry, but also to the urban history of London – the Corporation is displaying lamentable disrespect to its constituents and the world beyond.”

The Bevis Marks shul, which is lit by limited electric light and 240 candles in massive chandeliers, was at risk of losing access to natural light and therefore the ability to conduct davening and events if the 48-storey building went up, Britain’s Jewish News reported.

The 320-year old shul was founded by Spanish and Portuguese Jews who had fled the Inquisition and is now a major tourist attraction. Generations of British Jews davened, married, and lived with Bevis Marks as the center of their community.

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, D.C. Dame Karen Pierce, calling the proposed building “a shocking disregard for the needs and historic rights of the Sephardic Jewish community.”

Other opponents noted it was highly unlikely a historical church in England would be threatened in this way, and that information about city meetings on the project were sent out on Shabbos.

Rabbi Shalom Morris, the current rav of the shul, told the councillors, “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.

“It will diminish the spiritually uplifting and practically necessary light that filters into the synagogue,” he continued. “There’s so many ways Bevis Marks will be harmed by this scheme.”

The City of London’s assistant town clerk, after receiving the recommendation of the committee, will make a final decision concerning the project’s fate.




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