ISSUE 70
OCTOBER 1998
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The Sephardim in England

Rabbi Dr. Abraham Levy (below) talks to Clive Roslin on "Sounds Jewish" Programme

 

"Rabbi Dr. Levy you are the spiritual head of Sephardim in this country and you have been here now at the Synagogue for many, many years, but it is the oldest synagogue isn't it?"

The Jews came to England in 1657 at the time of Oliver Cromwell, and the Bevis Marks Synagogue was built in 1701.

Bevis Marks still opens on Shabbat for worship, but the main Sephardi activities are centred around Lauderdale Road Synagogue, where we have a Synagogue and a Sephardi Centre. Nearby we have the Naima Jewish Preparatory School, and the residential home for the elderly in Wembley.

"Let us go back over the history, if you like, of when the first Sephardi Jews came to this country, some 400 years ago. They went first to the East End and that was Bevis Marks?"

When the first Sephardi Jews came to this country over 300 years ago, they were living in the city. They arrived earlier, not as Jews but as Spanish Catholics, who were running away from persecution in Spain. Over here, there was a war between England and Spain. They realised they were suffering because they were considered Spanish Catholics and as they were neither Spanish nor Catholic, they thought what is the point of suffering for something that they were not.

They decided to go to Oliver Cromwell and ask him to allow the Jews to come back to England. They brought over Menasseh Ben Israel, the famous Rabbi from Amsterdam. He went to Cromwell, and though no official permission was given to remain here, they were allowed to stay and they opened a place to worship in Creechurch Lane, near Bevis Marks.

Jews had lived in England previously. They originally came in 1066 with William The Conqueror, and remained here until 1290 when they were expelled by King Edward I.

As an old community we have very ancient traditions and there are some families that can still trace their ancestry back some 300 years. The Bevis Marks Synagogue seats about 600 people. If that community had continued to grow from then to today, there would have been hundreds of thousands of Sephardim in England. But, sadly many assimilated. All Jewish migration to England after the second World War, was Sephardi. Jews have come from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, Algiers, Italy, Gibraltar, even India. Many of them, have joined our community, and given it a vibrancy which is quite exciting.

"This is a renaissance, in other words, that has been led by you?"

We are very happy that there has been a renaissance. It is part of the general renaissance of Jewish activity in Anglo Jewry. It has been marked in Maida Vale with the arrival of young families, and more especially, I believe as a result of the opening of the Naima Jewish Preparatory School some 15 years ago. This is the first Sephardi school opened by Sephardim in 100 years. The school has just been revamped at a cost of 1M, and exciting educational activities are occurring there.

"The school is in fact your baby. It must give you a great satisfaction in it becoming so popular?"

When the school first opened, people were doubtful as to whether a Jewish school in the West End of London would succeed. However, the school is full and there is a long waiting list. The school is my baby, and I am very proud of it, and thank God we were able to achieve it. It is popular with Sephardim and Ashkenazim. The school has given tremendous vibrancy to the Lauderdale Road Synagogue.

"The Synagogue is not all you have at Lauderdale Road. You have got an amazing centre - a centre of Jewish culture and learning."

A few years ago we were given a very handsome donation by one of the families in the congregation, and we opened the Sephardi Centre and Shasha Library. The centre opens most evenings of the week with all sorts of Shiurim, lectures and discussion groups. We have also the Montefiore Kollel. Sir Moses Montefiore opened a college in Ramsgate, in memory of his wife. The college was transferred to London in the 1960's. But, sadly, closed in the 80's. However, the funds were still there and now we are very happy that we have a Kollel where young Rabbis teach and learn Torah.

"So your concentraion, if I am right, is trying to work particularly with young people in order to work and encourage the Sephardim to go on for many centuries?"

Everyone in the community is important, and although we have to look after everybody in the community, if we want a future, we have to devote our energies to the young. Those who want to know about Judaism today are not satisfied with the wishy-washy, anaemic type of Judaism which served their parents and grandparents. People who want to remain Jewish want to know about it, want to be much more active.

We, the Sephardi Rabbis, pride ourselves that ideological adjectives of Judaism do not appear in Sephardi history. Reform, conservative, liberal, orthodox - these ideological adjectives developed in Ashkenazi countries. The Sephardi Jews, even if they had differences among them, and they did have many differences, would always manage to remain as a cohesive group. They were Jews. Some observed more, some less, but they were Jews. This is how I like to lead my Rabbinate here in the Sephardi community. We don't ask questions, our only definition of a good Jew is somebody who wants to be a better Jew.

"As a result of your attitude, the Sephardi community is thriving. What happens in years to come? Are there going to be future Rabbis to take the reigns from you?"

I get tremendous pleasure to encourage young Rabbis around me to take on increased activities in the Anglo Jewish community. There are some marvellous Rabbis with tremendous verve and enthusiasm who are doing marvellous work.

What gives me particular pleasure is that we can proudly say that Lauderdale Road has produced at least a Minyan of young Rabbis who are now serving different communities all over the world.

Some of these Rabbis are not working in Sephardi communities, but it does not bother me so long as they are doing good work. As the Sephardi community progresses and increases its activities, we will have to bring in more of these young Rabbis to serve the community. The Kollel has 10 Rabbis studying regularly, if only part-time.

We are now looking at a very exciting project; the possibility of building a cultural centre on the site of Carmel College. There is a very big Sephardi participation as it was purchased by The Exilarch's Foundation. Many young groups are already using the campus.

We are now developing week-day activities at Bevis Marks. There are thousands, literally thousands, of young Jews who work in the City throughout the week, and the Montefiore Kollel and the Sephardi Centre have now started educational activities at Bevis Marks during the week.

We have a regular Wednesday lunch and Shiur given by Rabbi Saul Djanogly. We have other events, particularly on Monday evenings with Rabbi Rashi Simon. There is now a suggestion to open a little refectory in the complex so that people can come there during the day, pick up a book, have a drink and a short Shiur, and perhaps say a prayer in the Synagogue. The City Churches are now being used for this purpose. We believe that this facility will be of great benefit to all of Anglo Jewry.

We get thousands of non-Jewish visitors at Bevis Marks. We have a little shop there, we give them talks and they come to understand Jewish values and Jewish history. Our Shamash, Henry Vallier, under the direction of the Rev. Halfon Benarroch, helps a great deal in this area.

"Finally to sum up, you feel totally satisfied that the future looks very bright and that Anglo Jewry will be represented by Sephardim, as it has been for all these 350 odd years, that it will continue in the same way?"

I believe that a great deal of the future leadership in Anglo Jewry will come from young Sephardim. The Sephardi Jew who may not be very observant today, will rarely mock his religion. The oriental has an inherent respect for God and for religion, even if they are not very observant.

"Rabbi Levy, thank you very much."

 

 


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