But what about the parking?” That was the question on people’s lips at the first JW3 event I ever attended four years ago, a few weeks before it formally opened its doors. The building already looked impressive, the inaugural programme included Kevin Spacey and Nicholas Hytner, and the mood at the Q&A with philanthropist Dame Vivien Duffield, Daniel Finkelstein and Lord Sacks was ebullient. “I’m looking forward to using my free bus pass to get there,” joked Lord Sacks as guests griped about not being able to drive to it.
It’s fair to say that, when conceived, there were doubts about creating a US-style Jewish community centre in London. The project was beset with delays — initially launched in 2003, the recession put paid to a speedy opening and it took a decade and some £50m to reach fruition. There were other concerns: who would use it? Would it become a bastion of Orthodox Judaism but offer nothing to Progressive communities? Would it steal from other Jewish cultural hubs like the LJCC (the two have since merged), or from smaller events at shuls? I shared some of those fears. Anglo Jewry is not American Jewry, with its tendency towards outward expressions of Jewishness. Would JW3 be too noisy, too much?
“Everyone was against this,” Dame Vivien explained at that first event. “They thought their shuls had very good community centres.” And, she laughed; they both didn’t want it and thought it “should be in the street next to them”.
Well, they say if you build it they will come, and so it‘s been (with the exception of a small minority, but more on that shortly). I travel up the Finchley Road on a regular basis and more often than not JW3 is lit up, crowds visible through its glass-fronted exterior. Zest, its restaurant, has become the unthinkable; a kosher joint non-Jews might actually want to go to.
Four years on, and I was wrong; we might not be American, but there is something wonderful about seeing Jewishness so cheerfully, proudly represented in one of London’s busiest thoroughfares, especially in a period when being publicly Jewish in Europe has occasionally felt uncomfortable. When the instinct has rather been to keep our communal head down, JW3 and its CEO Raymond Simonson have taken the opposite approach; we’re here, we’re Jewish, let’s talk about it.
And not just one version of Jewishness, but Jewishness of different communities and issues; from Purim parties to family fundays and from celebrations of Israel or Sephardi culture to commemorations of history, to Gefiltefest and seasonal staples such as the Hampstead Beach.
At that first event, Dame Vivien spoke of hoping to see JW3 host the Chief Rabbi with the Grand Mufti and the Archbishop of Canterbury. That may not have transpired but the centre does bring different groups together; from Orthodox to Reform to those for whom culture is the driving force of their identity, and those who aren’t Jewish at all.
I’ve attended my share of events; a memorable Book Week panel dissecting the Jewishness of Dirty Dancing, screenings and lectures, at least three hustings, and myriad dinners at Zest.
I will even attend a wedding soon of a couple who first met at a JW3 event. Yes, I could have gone to those events elsewhere, but would I have?
In the midst of an unrelenting stream of bad news, from last week’s antisemitism figures to tension in Israel, it’s important to celebrate good things, too. With shul membership down, JW3 does much to promote a sense of communal belonging. It is proof that Anglo-Jewry can innovate, can do things differently, and survive, even thrive.
In February, JW3 invited visitors to a series of GayW3 events. At the time, the hoardings were graffitied; now a letter urging a boycott has emerged signed by a cabal of ultra-Orthodox rabbis, condemning JW3 for promoting a lifestyle “in total contradiction to Orthodox Judaism”.
It’s a depressing, disgraceful attack, and one to which our response — whatever our affiliation — should be resolving to support JW3 all the more. JW3 has offered common ground to so many. What a shame a small number of antiquated “leaders” choose to sow division in a place of unity.
I may not go weekly, or even every month, but there genuinely is something special about these events happening in one home; all these different manifestations of Judaism and Jewish engagement swirling round under one roof. Not at a shul allied with a particular stream, but at a Jewish centre that does not expect anything as you walk through the door. To those wishing to boycott JW3, I say: “your loss”.