In Ramsgate, Searching For the Legacy of Sir Moses Montefiore

Financier's Estate Had Its Own Personal Synagogue

Estate of Worship: Construction began on Sir Moses Montefiore’s synagogue in 1831.
Liam Hoare
Estate of Worship: Construction began on Sir Moses Montefiore’s synagogue in 1831.

By Liam Hoare

Published October 22, 2013, issue of October 25, 2013.
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In the absence of a substantial Sephardic Jewish community in the vicinity, the Montefiore synagogue is no longer active. It is without a rabbi, and all but one of its Torah scrolls have been relocated to London; the remaining scroll is no longer in usable condition. Haredim from Stamford Hill in London, who in any case arrange their own services, do use the synagogue for worship, if only on occasion. The Thanet & District Reform Synagogue serves the needs of the Jewish community in Ramsgate.

At the same time, the Montefiore family has expressed a wish that the two bodies be exhumed with the purpose of reburying them in Jerusalem. After all, their connection to that city is legend, Montefiore having funded the construction of the first Jewish neighborhood outside the Old City, Mishkenot Sha’ananim, as well as the windmill of Yemin Moshe, which was recently restored.

After the reopening of that windmill last year, Montefiore’s great-great-nephew, the historian and novelist Simon Sebag Montefiore, told The Jewish Chronicle: “I had a conversation with the Prime Minister and I told him that a lot of the family thought it was about time that Sir Moses was brought back to Jerusalem. He came to Jerusalem seven times. Now he can go home.” He explained that it was becoming “an increasing struggle” to maintain the synagogue and mausoleum, noting the absence of “viable Jewish life.”

The local authorities and those charged with maintaining Sir Moses Montefiore’s heritage in Ramsgate, however, fiercely resist such plans. “The Ramsgate Montefiore Heritage protests most strongly against any proposal concerning the removal of Sir Moses and Lady Montefiore from their last resting place in Ramsgate, the place where they chose to be buried,” the organization said in a statement.

“Sir Moses wished to be buried in Ramsgate, where he built a mausoleum for his wife, who predeceased him, and subsequently for himself. Sir Moses frequently visited Palestine but never attempted to live there nor did he state he wanted to be buried there. If Sir Moses had wanted to be buried in Palestine, this presumably would have been arranged.”

Meanwhile, 180 years after its initial dedication in the presence of both the Ashkenazi and Sephardic chief rabbis, the synagogue and mausoleum remain open to visitors on an irregular basis. B’nai B’rith UK organizes open days for the general public, staffed by a guide. The rest of the time it is shut, open only upon request. Still, it is a captivating monument, not only as a tribute to Sir Moses Montefiore, his imagination and his contribution to Ramsgate, but also as a relic of a time in the 19th century when the English aristocracy and Jewish upward mobility collided, producing this most exquisite building.

Liam Hoare is a freelance writer based in the United Kingdom. His work on politics and literature has been featured in The Atlantic and in The Jewish Chronicle.


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