London's historic synagogue struggles to stay out of the shadows

LONDON – Rabbi Shalom Morris made his way through steel scaffolding that construction workers noisily dismantled as he showed a visitor ...


LONDON – Rabbi Shalom Morris made his way through steel scaffolding that construction workers noisily dismantled as he showed a visitor his 320-year-old synagogue, Bevis Marks. When the renovation is complete, there will be a new visitor center in the cozy courtyard outside the building.

But Rabbi Morris was less concerned with his own building project than with two others for which the developers are seeking approval next door. Both are office towers – 20 and 48 stories, respectively – and if built, he said, they would leave one of London’s most venerable places of worship in near-permanent twilight.

“If it was next to St. Paul’s Cathedral, it wouldn’t happen,” said Rabbi Morris, 41, a former New Yorker who oversaw the synagogue, the oldest in Brittany, for six years. “They are ready, at best, to roll the dice and, at worst, to do lasting harm.”

It’s not that the rabbi is going after all the skyscrapers. Bevis Marks is already nestled in a forest of glass and steel of soaring towers, many of which have wacky nicknames – the Gherkin, the Walkie Talkie, the Cheesegrater – that have transformed London’s financial district, known as the City. , in a sort of Legoland version of Chicago.

But Rabbi Morris says these latest towers, to the immediate east and south of Bevis Marks, would be a “tipping point,” blocking out the already precious sunlight from London now flowing through its arched windows, from morning to morning. in the afternoon. The synagogue’s landmark status prevents it from increasing its artificial light, which is provided by 1920s sconces attached to its supporting pillars.

“There is this incredible serenity in the courtyard that prepares you to enter the synagogue,” said Rabbi Morris. “But when you have 50 stories watching you, putting you in the shadows, that experience is lost.”

This claim is open to debate: The developers have commissioned studies which they believe show that there would be very little loss of sunlight. The synagogue has competing studies that show there are said to be many. But there is no doubt that Bevis Marks has long been locked away by the world of commerce that developed around him – and a pair of impending skyscrapers would add to the feeling of being locked away.

Now surrounded by low-rise office buildings and accessible by an easy-to-miss stone archway, the reddish-brick synagogue was built in 1701 to blend in with its surroundings, in a classic style influenced by Christopher Wren, the architect. of St. Paul’s.

Its first followers were Jews from Portugal and Spain who fled the Inquisition and were authorized by Oliver Cromwell in 1657 to practice their faith in England. Today’s congregation is a mix of descendants of these Sephardic Jews and a small number of office workers who come for morning prayers.

Tensions around high-rise buildings, familiar to New Yorkers irritated by luxury skyscrapers just south of Central Park, are not new to London. This is especially true in the City, which dates back to London’s Roman origins and has dozens of buildings of historic significance, from the Guildhall to the Bank of England.

However, Bevis Marks’ deep symbolism for London’s Jewish community makes it more than just a dusting off between the developers and custodians of a historic site.

“Religious buildings should be treated with special care,” said Stephen Graham, professor of cities and society at Newcastle University. “Light is an essential part of the spiritual experience. It is unthinkable that a cathedral would face this kind of challenge, so why a synagogue?

The two towers examined are rather modest by the flamboyant standards of some of the City’s skyscrapers. They are at different stages of a long review process, but both could be approved by the end of the year.

Welput, a real estate fund that is developing the largest, at 31 Bury Street, declined to comment on its building’s impact on the synagogue because it was under public comment. Merchant Land, the promoter of the other, at 33 Creechurch Lane, said studies showed his building would not have a significant negative impact and that he had been working with the synagogue since 2017 to try to allay his concerns regarding daylight.

“Merchant Land acknowledges that all of the synagogue’s objections have not been resolved to their satisfaction,” he said in a statement, adding that he was “determined to build a positive relationship based on meeting needs. of each one “.

Rabbi Morris rallied his few hundred followers to submit objections to the plans. With the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe and the United States – and infecting British political discourse, especially within the ranks of the Labor Party – he and other supporters of Bevis Marks argue that the city’s planners should make a extra effort to protect it.

“It makes the preservation of this place all the more important,” said Sir Michael Bear, a former Lord Mayor of London who is Jewish and whose daughter is married to Bevis Marks. “What is happening here is the victim of a flawed planning process.”

Mr Bear, an engineer and developer who built the sprawling Spitalfields market in east London, said he believed there was a good chance that one or both projects would be approved. There has been a huge push, he said, to approve new office towers to demonstrate the city has bounced back from Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic. The paradox is that the pandemic has raised lingering questions about the future of the workplace and who will fill these giant buildings.

Even now, with much of London returning to normal turmoil, the City remains calm, with many of its towers still mostly deserted. But the pounding of jackhammers and jackhammers echo through the streets, as more and more skyscrapers join them.

Bevis Marks angered some of his followers in 2018 when he urged them to oppose a nearby proposed third tower for the same reasons, but then abruptly withdrew his opposition after the developer agreed to donate. an undisclosed sum of money to help build the visitor center. Rabbi Morris now says the decision to strike a deal was a mistake.

The 56-story wedge-shaped tower, nicknamed Cheesegrater 2, has been approved but has yet to be built. The synagogue ended up funding the visitors’ center from other sources, including a grant of £ 2.8million, or $ 3.8million, from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, which provides funds raised through the lottery to projects that preserve the heritage of the nation.

Prince Charles is a patron of the center, which the rabbi says will display relics from the synagogue’s collection, including silverware and ceremonial clothing. Charles has never shied away from tackling London’s development issues (he once described a modernist National Gallery extension project as a “monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much loved and stylish friend”). But he has not yet become involved in this conflict.

The City of London Corporation, which will decide on the new towers, declined to comment, as did the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. Mr. Khan has periodically used his powers to attempt to block projects, most notably the Tulip, a bulbous observation tower proposed to stand next to the Gherkin.

Professor Graham, whose book “Vertical” explores the impulse to build upward, said the pressure to approve towers in London would persist because of the mistaken belief that “to be a global city you must have a New York skyline “. In this case, he said, it has led to a fascination with “identifiable toy towers” that contrast sharply with the classic Wren aesthetic of the Bevis Marks synagogue.

“We recognize that the city wants to develop in a certain way,” said Rabbi Morris, as he walked past the Gherkin with his neck outstretched to the sky. “But there is a deafness in tone to the implications of this.”

Anna Joyce contributed reporting

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Newsrust - US Top News: London's historic synagogue struggles to stay out of the shadows
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