I'm sorry that I got my way

By Jonathan Freedland, July 25, 2008

Let's hope the JCC does not lose momentum now its building plans have been shelved

One of the oddities of my line of work is the frequent desire to be proved wrong. Often we commentators make dire predictions about the state of the world, issuing gloomy warnings about the consequences of this or that decision, consequences which - as citizens, rather than journalists - we obviously hope will never materialise. In this game, vindication is rarely sweet and often bitter.

A small reminder of that came late last week, concerning not a grave matter of state or some question of war and peace, but an issue that nevertheless will have an impact on our community. I got the word that the Jewish Community Centre for London - brainchild of Dame Vivien Duffield, modelled on the JCCs of the United States - would not, after all, be going ahead with its ambitious plan for a bespoke, state-of-the-art building on the site of the car showroom it had bought on Finchley Road. (They'll now just refurbish the existing shell, for a fraction of the cost.)

It turns out that, despite all the hoopla, publicity and debate about the project, there is simply not enough money to pay for it. Apparently the price of building materials, such as steel and glass, is rocketing; London has a particular shortage of engineers and the like because they're all working on the 2012 Olympics; and, harshest of all, donations have been slowing down, as the credit crunch starts to bite even the wealthiest among us.

Now, just last month I had written in this slot a column whose headline declared: The JCC doesn't need a building. Surely, more than one person has asked, I'm gladdened by this news. After all, I've got my way.

As it happens, I don't have that feeling at all. It is quite true that I struggled to see the need to spend tens of millions of pounds on bricks and mortar when the JCC's current, nomadic existence has been working so well - staging stellar events in a string of first-class London venues, from the South Bank to the Barbican. But that view sprang from enthusiasm for what the JCC has been doing: I can't take any pleasure in a setback for an institution I admire and which has so rapidly become a cultural force to be reckoned with.

If the board of the JCC had sat down, listened to my arguments and, for no reason other than the sheer brilliance of the case, decided to spend their money on programming rather than a building - that would have been all very well. But to be forced to make a decision under financial pressure, because times are hard - no one can celebrate that.

Besides, I was quite looking forward to being proved wrong. After all, when it comes to the JCC, I have form. When the idea was first floated, I was sceptical, believing that Anglo-Jewry was already amply provided for (if not to the point of excess). But the range and ingenuity of the JCC's activities - from the Hummus Fest to the Kvetch Choir - steadily won me over.

JCC staffers assured me that I would be confounded yet again once they had a building. The mere presence of so many creative people under one roof would trigger a chemical reaction that was impossible to predict, they said.

Other JCCs around the world had seen all kinds of collaborations take off, generating schemes no one had ever thought of (a music club for autistic people, for example). The same would happen in London, in a way that was impossible so long as the JCC had to squat in the ICA or rent space at the Screen on the Hill. If that cultural flowering was going to happen, I'd liked to have seen it.

Instead, we have to hope that the JCC doesn't lose its energy and momentum. I liked the roving events in their own right, but it is possible the JCC team only endured the nomadic life because they believed they were on their way to something better. With the sparkling headquarters now out of reach, I hope they don't let their morale dip. They shouldn't: a smart refurb might be just the trick, a neat - if unwanted - compromise between my cheapskate desire to see the JCC keep wandering in the London wilderness and their grand design for a mega-bucks home of their own.

There's one last reason why I can't be cheered by the JCC's belt-tightening. Because if they are feeling the pinch now, then surely some of our other communal institutions will be next. The JCC was the new kid on the block: it was bound to be the first to catch a cold once the economic weather turned chilly. But all the indications are that it's going to get colder still. A recession, or worse, could force several of our charities to cut back: if that happens, we'll lose not just a swanky building, but much-needed services.

Though of course I hope I'm wrong.

Last updated: 1:43pm, July 24 2008