By Leon A Smith
March 16, 2012
Last week I was away in Rome for a weekend and several weeks ago I was in Israel for a very short stay. When in Israel I had the pleasure of visiting the Western Wall – a physical place that always impacts upon me in an emotional and spiritual way. Consciously and intellectually I am aware that I am simply looking at a lot of very large stones – but there’s something, somehow about that place which feels special and magical. That’s why whenever I visit Israel I have the compelling need to be at the Wall. Not because I’m deeply religious but because it does something to my spirit which no other place can do.
Rome is also a wonderful city – a place I had never visited previously. The old centre of Rome is completely unspoilt by modern buildings. It does not take a huge amount of imagination to picture what it must have been like many hundreds or even thousands of years ago, as is the case with Jerusalem. It’s not possible to visit Rome without seeing the Vatican – an iconic location which again cannot fail to impress in terms of the beauty of the buildings and the sheer size and scale of St Peter’s Square.
Two physical locations – one in Jerusalem and one in Rome, both centres of ancient civilisation yet still both still standing and attracting millions of visitors such as myself each year. Yet what is the logic of this? They are places. Physical cities. Locations and nothing more. But of course in reality these places, which one cannot fail to be impressed with, not only provide a sense of history and faith but also of community. These two cities are perhaps exceptional in that they possess such iconic locations. Do such locations exist in the UK? St Paul’s Cathedral? Westminster Abbey? Edgware United Synagogue? Clearly there is an attraction for those that attend these places regularly and/or simply want to go and look at them but the answer to my question has to be perhaps that our identification with locations in this country is manifested in a slightly different way.
And here (at last!) I get to my point. Nightingale is located in leafy Clapham, South West London. It is a home providing care for older members of the Jewish community – but yes it’s also just a building, albeit a very nice building. Yet this beacon represents a symbol of community here in South London. We know that the Jewish community in South London, whilst numerically significant is very geographically fragmented and dispersed. But here in this area which many North Londoners might describe as being “Jewishly barren” is this large and very warm centre of community. When I try to look objectively at Nightingale I see a very significant community building which unlike so many other community buildings is in use 24/7 365 days a year. The building draws in residents, staff, relatives, volunteers, entertainers, and a myriad of other visitors. It’s like a magnet for the Jewish community in South London. Being the largest Jewish institution which exists in the area, it is also looked upon more widely in the non-Jewish community as being the “centre of Jewish presence” in the area. So whether it’s a school covering Judaism in its curriculum, a multi faith group meeting, or people interested in attending a Seder, they are always attracted to Nightingale.
We exist to provide care for older members of the Jewish community but we are also de facto a community in ourselves which attracts people from far and wide. I am not suggesting that Nightingale, a large house built in 1860, should be thought of in the same way that the Western Wall or the Vatican should be, but it is nevertheless more than just simply a building – it is warm, vibrant and inviting to all.