When Dame Vivien Duffield first suggested the idea of an American-style Jewish community centre in London a decade ago, many assumed it was just a kite that would sail into the clouds and vanish.
But Raymond Simonson was never among the doubters. Dame Vivien’s name was then unfamiliar to the informal Jewish education worker. But when he looked up her history, he was impressed. He discovered that, again inspired by the States, Dame Vivien had set her sights on opening the Eureka children’s museum in Halifax. “Everyone said that would never happen,” Simonson recalls. “It’s now one of the most popular in the UK.”
He then joined the advisory team to the fledgling community centre enterprise, which for years operated as a virtual centre, running arts and cultural events that built its creative reputation. Now he is chief executive of the community’s most ambitious project, which launches on Sunday, with an official opening on Tuesday.
The glass-fronted JW3 edifice has no inhibitions about signposting itself as a Jewish centre to the traffic passing between the West End and the north London suburbs on the busy Finchley Road. Richly-equipped, its facilities include an auditorium, cinema, arts and craft studios, demonstration kitchen, restaurant, nursery and a Shabbat lift, to boot. The spacious piazza at the front will be transformed into the Garden of Eden for the opening theme of “In the beginning”, chiming with the reading of the book of Bereshit in the Jewish calendar. Its 100-page brochure of 1,300 events and classes over the next three months spans high profile talks from the likes of director Kevin Spacey to “anthropomorphic mouse taxidermy”.
At the helm of all this is a CEO who stepped straight from university into working for Jewish youth and is steeped in community life. Growing up in Ilford, Simonson believes his future path was shaped by one institution above all — the Redbridge Jewish Youth and Community Centre, which was the only one of its kind in London.
“I have been very lucky to be at the right place at the right time. I was at Redbridge when it changed from a club for Jewish kids to being a Jewish youth club.”
A young youth worker, David Goldberg, who is now UJIA fundraising director, “transformed the place” in the late 1980s with a pioneering programme titled Enjoy Being Jewish. “I still have the EBJ T-shirt,” Simonson says. “It was about giving passion and a love of being Jewish to a bunch of kids and teenagers who otherwise wouldn’t have given a monkeys. It made it stimulating and fun.”
He recalls as a teenager “walking in on rowdy, football playing lads singing and chanting birkat hamazon [grace after meals], banging the tables as if they were in yeshivah. It was inspirational youth work.”
Although “not a youth movementy person”, he took a gap year in Israel after school. And while he did his leadership training courses there, he also was “a bit of a geek. I didn’t want to spend my entire time with the English and American kids. I hung out with loads of Israelis. I would sit in a café and say: ‘How do you order a beer?’ So now my Hebrew is pretty fluent. I learnt it on the streets of Dimona.”
On his return to the UK, he ditched plans to take an education degree and switched to a BA in Hebrew and Jewish history at University College London, attracted by a course which included a year back in Israel, at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.
During his year abroad, he worked in a bookshop café. You will find few people who reminisce so enthusiastically about washing dishes, scrubbing floors and cleaning toilets. The café owner happened to be a former books editor of an Israeli newspaper and regulars included some of the country’s top literary names.
“Yehuda Amichai would come and read his poetry, David Grossman would read a new excerpt from a book and I would make their coffee and clean the table and chat with them. It was like the romantic era of being a student in Paris in the 1960s. I had that in Jerusalem. I had a year immersed not just in Israeli culture but in Jewish art and culture.”
The day after his finals in London he was interviewed for a new post for the UJIA’s centre for informal Jewish education. Some of his colleagues during his 11 years there, the last few as director, have now joined him at JW3 — Roy Graham, director of strategy at the community centre and Colin Bulka, director of programming.
In 2006, he was picked to be Limmud’s first full-time director. Its winter education conference continued to grow under his tutelage and, internationally, Limmud expanded from a handful of venues to over 60. While some Jewish leaders are drawn to microphones like moths to a flame, you would never have found him upfront on stage during conference. “They didn’t want someone to be the boss because it has got to be run by volunteers. They wanted someone who could take a back seat and give the right steer. I felt I was the parent of the barmitzvah boy.”
Although JW3 is a “step up on every level for me”, his jeans, open collar and trademark sideburns retain the informality of his youth and Limmud background. JW3 will draw on Limmud’s “vibrancy and variety”, he promises, but will also be “inspired by the Barbican, the South Bank Centre, by Rich Mix in east London. In size and numbers, of course, we’re smaller. But we are going to be for north-west London the equivalent of a Barbican and the equivalent of a year-round Limmud or Jewish Film Festival.”
Dame Vivien’s family foundation has contributed £40 million to the £50 million start-up costs. But Simonson and his team face a formidable fundraising challenge to meet running costs. “If we sell all the tickets that we are expecting to sell over a year, the memberships and the restaurant and nursery do as well as we need them to do and simchah and corporate bookings achieve their maximum, I still need to raise about a million pounds a year.”
Individual memberships — which will bring discounts for event tickets and the restaurant — have been set low at £45 annually. Events have been “priced competitively”, he adds. “This is a non-profit organisation. We are not here to milk money off people. But we’re not going to charge twopence ha’penny, otherwise we’ll go bankrupt in a year.”
If it is a home of Jewish culture, a cross-communal space “in between town and the Jewish heartlands”, JW3 is also mindful of being open to the local community. One Muslim family has already booked into its nursery. South Hampstead High School is using it for assemblies. In winter, the piazza will have an ice rink a la Somerset House. And in one social action project, Habonim teenagers will learn how to bake cakes, which will be distributed to a local homeless shelter.
The cynicism that he once encountered about JW3 has largely given way to excited anticipation. But, of course, how could you launch a major Jewish venture without something to grumble about? Which brings us on to parking.
While the building has good transport links for buses, overground and tube, it has only a handful of parking places. “We wouldn’t have been able to build this building if we had to have the car park — which was in the original plan,” Simonson explains. “One factor was the extra level of money. The plan changed when the whole global finance blew up. This whole project could have gone under at that point.” But also, the centre “would not have got planning permission from Camden [Council] if it involved parking”.
The O2 Centre car park is 10 minutes walk away and spaces are available close by at night and on weekends, he points out. JW3’s few places are for the disabled and blue badge holders can also park nearby.
Some programmes for children and toddlers are targeted at locals. Simonson and his wife Helene have a five-year-old son, Mossy, and a two-year-old daughter, Libby, so he understands the needs of families with young children, transport among them.
But, generally, when the issue of parking comes up, his response is to ask: “Where do they park when they go to the Barbican or National Theatre? They’ll say they go by London transport. The transport links here are fantastic. If we can’t build a programme that will attract people to get on a bus or take a tube for 20 minutes — those people who do it every day to go to work — I’m in the wrong game.”