London’s JW3, “Increasing The Quality, Variety, and Volume of Jewish Conversation”

Young professionals beach party at JW3

By Liam Hoare

JW3 is quite unlike any building the Jewish community of London has had before. An open and inviting structure, clad in glass, and pointed on the Finchley Road, one of the city’s main thoroughfares, this £50 million Jewish community center has sought to bring together a salad of Jewish social, educational, and cultural events, activities, classes, and courses all under a single roof – open to Jews and non-Jews alike. Upon its opening, London’s Jewish Chronicle described JW3 as “a living, dynamic building which has in its first week established itself at the heart of London Jewish life.”

JW3 will celebrate its first anniversary next month, and with over 4,000 people coming through its doors each week and offering more than 1,300 events and activities each season, it is evermore becoming the hub of Jewish cultural life in London. By early 2015, JW3 will have completed a merger with the London Jewish Cultural Centre (LJCC), with the latter moving its operations from its current site at Ivy House in Hampstead to JW3’s prominent site in north-west London.

Earlier this month, I sat down with Raymond Simonson, CEO of JW3, over coffee at his office to discuss the project’s inception, its first year in operation, and its future.

What was the idea behind JW3?

It was the brainchild of Dame Vivien Duffield, who is a very well-known philanthropist in the Jewish community and in the worlds of culture, art, and education in the UK. About ten years ago, she was in New York and went to the JCC Manhattan. What she saw, that was unusual compared to the UK, was that you had all kinds of Jewish people there – the full diversity of Jewish life all under one roof – and secondly significant numbers of non-Jewish people in a Jewish center interacting with Jewish content.

She was very taken by that and, when she came back, started a process of trying to work out if it would be something that would be viable here and started a conversation. The conclusion was that this is something that needed, something that can bring together different types of Jewish people with a program that is as diverse as the community is diverse.

Did you ever have any difficulties persuading people that JW3 was needed?

Made in London Festival

I’d love to say no and that people were banging on our doors saying this was needed. But that wasn’t the case with this. This was the work of a single visionary person who was proved correct. Dame Vivien Duffield said, “Of course there’s a need and we can build a place to respond to that.” A lot of people in the community were skeptical – some were even cynical. People who were running other organizations said, “I wish she’d give us her money.” But she decided to gift her money to the Jewish community to create something which didn’t previously exist.

Even up until a month or two before we opened the doors, people would say, “We didn’t ask for this, it’s in the wrong place, it won’t be for us, you won’t get people coming, there’s no parking.” And I think there were a couple of people involved in the project who were a bit nervous. But most of the people involved had been involved for quite a few years and had given hundreds of hours of their time to it. They were convinced by the vision of how this place could transform Jewish life in the UK, how we could excite and inspire people and create multiple entries points into Jewish life and the Jewish community, to provide a place where you can choose your own path.

In the beginning, do you also think community institutions were worried you would trample all over them and take their space?

Human beings are not very good at change. What we’re doing here is a disruptive force. It is not an evolution of what has gone before it – it’s a sudden bang.

But, one of the core values we’ve had from the beginning is about collaboration and partnership. There’s a line in the Midrash in Deuteronomy Rabba 1:10 which says, “A community is too heavy to carry alone.” The mistake that Jewish communities around the world make is thinking that one person or one organization can do everything. We’re honest – we know we can’t just come in and do everything by ourselves.

We have a cinema. We said we’d like to partner with the UK Jewish Film Festival and bring them into JW3 during the year. Normally, if you want to see Jewish film, you go once a year to the festival. Now we show Jewish film fifty-two weeks of the year. It’s unprecedented in the Jewish community. There’s never been a cinema where you could go and see Jewish film all year round. And we’re doing it in partnership with UK Jewish Film not because that partnership is always easy, nor because it’s always the best financially, but because there’s value in coming together and not stepping on each other’s toes.

Are you, with this prominent glass building, attempting to instigate attitudinal change in the Jewish community?

If I were to try and distill everything we do there, what we’re really about increasing the quality, variety, and volume of Jewish conversation in London and beyond.

This community invests millions in training and supporting young people. We take them to Israel and to summer camps, strengthen their Jewish identity and say to them, “Be loud, be proud of being Jewish.” At university, we support the Union of Jewish Students and the Jewish societies and say, “Stand up to anti-Semitism, stand up for Israel on campus.” And then, by their mid-twenties, they look around and wonder why they’re being told to shh, not be too loud, why we’re keeping our heads down, why we’re building buildings behind layers of high brick walls. You can walk past a hundred Jewish buildings in London and not know they are Jewish.

I understand the reality of anti-Semitism, that we live in the shadow of the Holocaust, that some people are out to get us – but they’re not all out to get us. It’s 2014, and it’s disingenuous to be investing all their time and energy in strengthening Jewish identity while our adult institutions and leadership do not reflect that outwardly. This is about feeling like it’s okay to raise our head above the parapet. This place is about the continued revival of a vibrant Jewish community. This place celebrates the diversity and the unity of the Jewish community.

Is there an event you’ve put on in the last eleven months that you’re particularly proud of?

Making Stalin Laugh

“Making Stalin Laugh.” We commissioned a brand new piece of theatre about the true story of the Moscow State Yiddish Theater under Stalin. For the writer, David Schneider, it was a passion of his and we know the story was going to be moving and interesting. This is the only place in the country that would have done something like that and I’m really proud that over a couple of weeks, between 1,800 and 1,900 people saw that piece of theatre, pretty much none of whom would have heard that story before. It gave a great Jewish writer and comedian a chance to write a piece of Jewish theatre.

Is there one group within the community that you feel you haven’t reached out to enough yet?

We don’t yet get the numbers of teenagers that I’d like to see and I believe we will get. They come to some things here, it’s okay, but I’d like to see that increase a lot because there’s a very good spread of all the other age groups. We’ve just employed a new youth worker, we’re working on our youth programming, we really want over the next year to start engaging. If you ask me this time next year, that would be the biggest disappointment if we haven’t grown a lot among young people.

This interview has been edited and condensed.