Rabbi Dr. Abraham
Levy (below) talks to Clive Roslin on "Sounds Jewish"
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
thank you very much."
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