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Nestled in a City of London courtyard, surrounded by glass, steel and concrete skyscrapers, is a historic and religious gem: the UK’s oldest synagogue.

On Friday night, at the start of the Jewish Sabbath, it takes 45 minutes to light up to 240 candles in the original chandeliers hanging from the ceiling of the 320-year-old building.

In addition to hosting prayer services, the Bevis Marks Synagogue hosts weekly visitors and school trips, and hosts conferences and community events in its Grade I listed building. Weddings and religious holidays are celebrated in the courtyard. .

But all of that is now under threat, according to Rabbi Shalom Morris, due to plans to build two huge towers that will block natural light from reaching the synagogue. “We’ll be a mushroom in the forest,” Morris said.

The proposals, for a 48-story office building and another 21, are expected to be decided by the City of London Corporation next month. Around 1,500 letters of objection have been sent by heritage organizations, academics and multi-faith groups, raising concerns about the impact on the City of London’s only non-Christian place of worship.

London skyscrapers threaten UK’s oldest synagogue |  London
The interior of the 320-year-old Grade I listed synagogue. Photograph: Linda Nylind / The Guardian

The synagogue was built in 1701, the first to be built after Jews – banished from England in 1290 – were allowed to return by Oliver Cromwell in the mid-17th century. Today, it is the only synagogue in Europe, and possibly the world, which has held continuous worship throughout its existence.

Originally, the synagogue was surrounded by buildings of a similar or lower height, allowing light to enter through the arched windows. But over time, the adjacent buildings got taller and taller. A 56-story skyscraper nicknamed the Diamond was approved in 2018.

The synagogue is also concerned about the potential risks of deep drilling in the area for the pile foundations needed for high-rise buildings, and increased noise levels associated with construction and increased footfall after the towers are completed. .

“I understand that the City needs to grow and develop, and we have tried to be tolerant of this. But now we’ve reached a tipping point where this growth is endangering the synagogue, ”Morris said.

“We believe that the sensitivity and importance of the site has been ignored. If this were proposed next to St Paul’s, these towers would never be built. Bevis Marks is the cathedral synagogue for British Jews. The planning authority sees us as a nuisance rather than a treasure to be protected. The level of anxiety and frustration this causes in our community is very difficult. “

London skyscrapers threaten UK’s oldest synagogue |  London
The synagogue is behind this building, which is to be demolished and rebuilt much higher. Photograph: Linda Nylind / The Guardian

Sir Michael Bear, former Lord Mayor of London, said he was a “strong supporter” of increasing modern office space in the city, but he was “bewildered and bewildered at how the real heritage considerations “had been processed.

Historic England, the body that protects the UK’s built heritage, has also raised concerns about the proposals. A spokesperson said: “Access via a secluded courtyard, the deliberately enclosed surroundings are an important part of [the synagogue’s] framework and contribute to its meaning. Although a strong sense of this remains, the courtyard has been overrun by recent developments of large buildings in the area, which has both eroded the private and intimate character it once enjoyed, as well as its prominence in its surroundings. immediate.

The quality of natural light was “an important part of the character and ambiance of the building’s interior,” the spokesperson added.

Bevis Marks, whose congregation includes local residents, town workers, students and international visitors, recently underwent a £ 7million renovation project, including the creation of a new visitor center , completed in time for the Jewish New Year next week and the synagogue’s 320th anniversary this Saturday.

“It is a historic place but also a place of life, a community. We’re not just interested in being a museum, ”Morris said.

A spokesperson for the City of London Corporation said its planning committee had considered “relevant representations both for and against a development before making a final decision,” but could not comment on specific requests. .


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