LONDON – Driving through Los Angeles one year, Raymond Simonson was startled to see a large poster overhanging a highway, advertising Mitzvah Day. As a Brit, he was used to Jews hiding their Jewishness in public – not flaunting it. He takes particular pleasure, then, in the enormous poster hanging across London’s first Jewish community center, located on one of London’s busiest thoroughfares, announcing its opening this week.
“Show me one building in the history of Anglo-Jewry sticking the word “Jewish” loud and proud,” says Simonson, the CEO of JW3, whose name is a play on its postcode. “Thirty-one million cars go past this building each year. There’s no denying what we are.”
The boldness – by English standards – does not end there, for Simonson intends JW3 to be “a disruptive force… a game-changer” for local Jewish life. While many American JCCs are known for their country-club atmosphere, with pools and gyms, JW3 has put together an astonishing program of arts, culture and Jewish learning, with over 1,300 sessions in the next three months alone.
Highlights include evenings with stars such as actor Kevin Spacey, National Theatre director Sir Nicholas Hytner and comedian Ruby Wax, performances by comedian Yisrael Campbell and jazz legend Ian Shaw, numerous book launches, a foodies film club in which movies are accompanied by dishes mirroring their theme, and a lecture series focusing on Israeli art.
‘Show me one building in the history of Anglo-Jewry sticking the word “Jewish” loud and proud’
On the quirkier side, there is a session on mouse taxidermy, a look at “Big British Broiguses”, a Misogynist Film Club in which feminists “celebrate the terrible portrayal of women in cinema,” and a monthly comedy night called “Havanagiggle”.
The purpose-built, four-story, 3,250 sq.m. building is equipped with a nursery school and auditorium, state-of-the-art cinema, demonstration kitchen and dance studio. The bottom floor is largely taken up by a bar and restaurant, Zest, run by two chefs who trained under one of London’s best-known cooks, Israel’s Yotam Ottolenghi.
The aim, says Simonson, is to raise the quality, variety and volume of Jewish conversation in the city. “If you take 52 weeks of the Jewish press and put the front pages together, 50 percent is about Israel, 40% anti-Semitism, and 10% is everything else to do with Jewish life,” he says. “What constitutes Jewish conversation is too narrowly defined. It’s not just Torah, Talmud, Marc Chagall, Golda Meir and all the usual subjects” – although, he might have added, these are all on the schedule as well.
He acknowledges that the center will not be breaking completely new ground. Particularly over the past 20 years, Anglo-Jewry has developed some outstanding programs such as Limmud – where Simonson used to be executive director – Jewish Book Week, now one of the largest literary festivals in Europe and the Jewish Film Festival.
These have made a significant impact: In London, jokes Simonson, “three-times-a-year Jews” has come to mean those who go to those annual events. But something more permanent is needed. “People want Limmud for life, not just for Christmas,” he says. “There’s nothing living, breathing 3-D technicolor all year round.”
JW3 is the brainchild of philanthropist Dame Vivien Duffield, who visited JCC Manhattan in 2002 and proposed a London equivalent the following year.
It was a hard sell: Simonson, who was then with Limmud, recalls sitting in on meetings in which other community professionals complained a JCC was unnecessary and resented the amount of money being spent on it. (Duffield provided £40 million out of the £50 million it has cost so far, but her commitment ends in two years’ time.)
“They didn’t want it – it was classic Anglo-Jewry,” he says. “Now they’re all asking why it isn’t in their neighborhood and all want to partner with us. Our phone is ringing off the hook.”
And indeed, JW3 intends to work with many of them, and is already hosting events for Jewish Book Week, the film festival, the London School of Jewish Studies and others. JW3’s distinctive culture emerged over time.
Its plot is in the tony neighborhood of West Hampstead, but as it is situated on the six-lane Finchley Road, it has an urban rather than a suburban feel.
The original blueprint for the building included a pool and gym, but these had to be dropped after the financial crash, and – happily, it turns out – forced a focus on programming instead. Simonson says that they have tried to draw inspiration from wider London culture as well as from other JCCs, and it will be a showcase for local talent. “This is a London interpretation of a JCC,” he says.
‘This is a London interpretation of a JCC’
The relationship with the city is built into the fabric of the building. There is a time capsule buried on site, to be opened next century, which includes items significant to local Jewish life and hundreds’ of people’s answers to the question, “What does being Jewish mean to you.” The center also commissioned 17 pictures of the previous building that stood on the site, that were buried in the local soil and are now embedded in JW3’s walls.
It is staunchly cross-communal, which is not a given in Anglo-Jewry, where the relationship between denominations is often fractious. British Orthodox rabbis have traditionally shied away from Limmud, for example, because they do not want to attend an event at which Progressive rabbis also spoke – although the newly installed chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, announced last month that he would go.
One concession JW3 has made to British-Jewish politics is that they will not host synagogue services on site, because it was the only way to get all denominations to give it their blessing.
“It doesn’t mean there won’t be birkat hamazon [Grace after meals],” says Simonson, “but there won’t be an alternative Yom Kippur service. They don’t have to think about that in the States.”
He hopes that the diversity of the program will reflect the diversity of the community, quoting approvingly one of JW3’s relatively unaffiliated volunteers, who told him that the center was going to “scratch the Jewish itch I didn’t know I had.”
Success is not guaranteed: there is little parking in the vicinity of JW3, it is not local to large swathes of greater London’s Jewish population, and 1,300 sessions are a lot to fill. But Simonson, who says that JW3 is ideally positioned with excellent transportation links, expects 60,000 visitors in the JCC’s first year and is certain that once they experience the program, they will be back.
The stakes are high: “We send thousands of kids in the youth movements on a gap year to Israel, teach them to be proud Jews, and then when they come back here and see how the adult community functions, they’re told not to be too Jewy,” he says. “One of the themes of Anglo-Jewry is rift, division and broiges. It has to change or we will lose, continue losing Jews, who will carry on disengaging.”