The increasing popularity of JW3 among non-Jews is contributing to rising attendances at the Finchley Road community centre.
There were more than 220,000 visits to JW3 in 2016, an average of around 4,500 a week. Visit numbers have reached 6,000 in recent weeks, sparked by attractions such as the seasonal ice rink, a children’s literary festival and record demand for its screenings of the film, Denial, based on Holocaust denier David Irving’s libel case against historian Professor Deborah Lipstadt.
Chief executive Raymond Simonson believes non-Jews account for as much as 20 per cent of visits. Contributory elements include the popularity of its Zest restaurant among the wider population and the broader appeal of activities like language classes and krav maga.
For example, he says he is one of just four Jews in the krav maga class for 30 or so people he takes. “Chatting to people, you find they are coming from south and east London because the class has a good reputation.”
Mr Simonson was delighted to see the centre’s Chanukah Funukah programme at the top of the list of Time Out magazine’s five things to do over Christmas. “It was not because it sold more seats. To see the centre reflected in such a positive way is a major part of our mission. If something appears in the mainstream press, it is likely to be about antisemitism or Israel. To have a counter to that is important. We can play a role in making British Jews feel proud of their heritage in a building which 34 million vehicles go past each year.”
When a group of Liverpudlian Jews came to JW3 to hear a talk by Dr Stephen Smith, founder of the National Holocaust Centre, they were impressed the building was highlighted on the local map at Finchley Road tube.
Some 1,600 people passed through JW3’s doors on Christmas Day, with all cinema and ice skating sessions sold out. “I’d have been very happy with 800,” Mr Simonson recalled. “And for 1,000, we’d be doing high fives.
“They say we have no car parking but this was on a day when there was no public transport.”
In Zest, a Japanese couple on a date could be at the next table to a group of kipah-wearing diners. In other areas of the building, programmes had brought in Muslims who had never been in a Jewish space for cultural events where they sat alongside Jews.
“It’s easy to be dismissive but a lot of what we do isn’t just for entertainment’s sake. We can use music, theatre, comedy and literature to spark a conversation.”
Financially, the centre had experienced its best year. The challenge was raising £2 million annually from 2018, Mr Simonson explained, and there would be at least one fundraising campaign this year. “We are on course towards that although I say that without complacency. People don’t think of us as one of the 10 [key] Jewish charities. But a handful of Jewish philanthropists who weren’t involved before are now coming on board.
“Because it’s a community centre, it should be owned by the community. One person giving £50,000 is easier for us but I would prefer 1,000 people giving £50.”
With no comparable model in the country to look at, the first three years of operation had been a learning curve and there was now less hesitancy to cut activities that were not working — “our funders rightly hold us to task”. By contrast, “we could fill the place with krav maga and language students. But we don’t want to be a Hebrew school.” A percentage of the budget was kept back for experimentation and there were programming strands the centre was committed to.
“We want to keep holiday playschemes affordable,” Mr Simonson said by way of example. “If Zest makes a profit tonight, that subsidises Holocaust Memorial Day activities or summer schemes.”