New London Culture Center Drives Forward British Jewish Conversation

Opening Sunday in North London, JW3 seeks to broaden Jewish issues beyond Israel, the Holocaust and anti-Semitism.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

A few months ago, when the permanent sign was put atop the JW3 building, the new Jewish community center that on Sunday opened on North London’s bustling Finchley Road, its offices were inundated by calls from members of the community. They were struck by the fact that the word “Jewish” could feature so prominently on the outside of a building in Britain.

Many of them, including leading figures in Jewish organizations, called nervously to register their concern over the size and location. JW3’s management wasn’t surprised by these calls. Less expected was that twice as many callers expressed enthusiasm at the exuberant display of identity.

British Jewry, arguably the best integrated and most successful of Jewish communities in Europe, conducts much of its communal life from discreet office blocks and nondescript synagogues, often closed behind security barriers and keypad doors. By contrast, the new JW3 center broadcasts its presence with an all-glass facade, wide-open gates and a wide courtyard - an architectural concept that the center’s directors liken to the biblical Ohel Avraham, Abraham’s tent, which was open in all directions. The resign reflects the challenge JW3’s leaders have taken upon themselves to broaden the scope of Jewish life in Britain.

British Jews have never had it better. Last year’s census, which puts their number at just under 300,000, indicates that a long demographic decline has begun to reverse. Jews stand out in public life like never before, and not just in business and academia, where they have been strong for a century. You can barely switch on a television today in Britain without seeing a Jewish broadcaster, entertainer or journalist.

With around 30 Jewish members of parliament, their representation in politics is about 10 times their proportion of the population, and the opposition leader - Ed Miliband, possibly the next prime minister - is Jewish. The installation of the new chief rabbi on September 1 was a national media event attended by the Prince of Wales, and BBC2 has aired over the past month a prime-time documentary miniseries on “The Story of the Jews.” Yet there is often the feeling, as the chief executive of JW3, Raymond Simonson, puts it, “of a community scared of its own shadow.”

These fears emanate from the historical traumas of European Jews and concerns over the rise of radical Islam and other far-right phenomena such as the racist British National Party and England Defense League. But there is little overt anti-Semitism in Britain, and Simonson says that “those fears and memories can’t define our identity.” He believes that JW3 will be the central vehicle “to promote a Jewish conversation which isn’t just about Israel, Holocaust and anti-Semitism, as important as all those issues are.”

It’s a daunting challenge, considering that those three issues seem to dominate coverage in Britain’s Jewish media (and also feature widely in the general press), but there’s another challenge to overcome even before that - making the center accessible to both Jewish and non-Jewish visitors alike.

While many comparisons of JW3 have been to the successful JCCs of Manhattan and other American cities, JW3 has eschewed the “shul with a pool” model. Preferring to focus on high-end arts and culture rather than sports and leisure, the JW3 people see themselves as a slightly more community-focused version of other London culture hubs such as the Barbican and the Southbank Center. The question is, will that be a draw?

So as not to align the center with a specific religious stream, there is no synagogue at JW3, and though most visitors may not be observant according to Jewish law, the ground-floor restaurant will be under kosher supervision. The computer system that controls the building’s lighting, air-conditioning and security systems has a built-in “Shabbat mode” approved by a rabbinical committee, and from sundown on Friday evening the center becomes “JW3 unplugged.”

After nearly a decade of planning and a good deal of controversy over whether the 50 million pounds that went into completing JW3 wouldn’t be better spent on other communal causes such as formal education, the people behind the new center feel they will have failed if a large proportion of London’s Jews don’t feel at home there. They admit that the fastest-growing Jewish demographic, the ultra-Orthodox, will probably not flock to a center offering dance classes, stand-up comedy and 25 movies a week, though they will be welcome if they do turn up.

What about the rest of the quarter-million Jews living in London? Unsurprisingly, headline opening events this week such as a conversation between actor Kevin Spacey and the director of the National Theater, Nicholas Hytner, have been sold out, but the real test will be over the months and years to come.

Simonson, whose previous job was executive director of the annual Jewish learning festival, says he wants to break the habit of “three-times-a-year Jews.” He explains that “it used to be Jews who went to synagogue three times a year and now it can be said of those who go to Limmud, Jewish Book Week and Jewish Film Festival, which are all fantastic events, but we want to have events the year around and also reach people beyond the usual crowd you see these three times a year.” Of the London-based Jewish learning charity he says, “We have to go beyond the Limmud bubble.”

His formula for building the program at JW3 is “increasing the quality, variety and volume of Jewish conversation.” According to Simonson, “By quality I mean no longer having Jewish culture something that gets put in an exhibition box but instead dragging it out, in full color, alive, kicking and screaming. In variety, we have to go beyond Israel, Shoah and anti-Semitism and bring in everything, from film to football, from Marc Chagall to Amy Winehouse and Mark Ronson. And the volume has to go to maximum.”

As Simonson puts it, “I’m often jealous of the Haredim who go around in every neighborhood wearing their black hats and coats - other Jews also have to find their way to wear their hearts on their sleeves, out loud and proud. That is what I believe JW3 should be about.”

Models portraying Adam and Eve at the Genesis-themed opening of London’s JW3 Jewish community center, Sept. 29, 2013.Credit: Blake Ezra Photography / JTA Photo Service
The new JW3 Jewish community center in London.Credit: Hufton + Crow

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