Predicting anything at the moment feels like a mug’s game.” So says Raymond Simonson, chief executive of JW3, the Jewish community centre for London.
He may be right: except that the closure of JW3’s flagship restaurant and café, Zest, has led to a scenario replicated community-wide, of figuring out how a community whose essence is meeting, greeting and eating, can function in the post-Covid era.
For Simonson and his team, the decision to close Zest has been heartbreaking but necessary. In planning to re-open the Finchley Road building in September, for a reduced initial programme with many activities remaining online, the JW3 staff have had to make a guess about how many people are likely to come into the premises.
And since they don’t know that, they also can’t yet calculate how to supply even minimal food and drink to the returning public. Instead they have spent hours pacing out floor space, ensuring only one family at a time uses the building’s lift and deciding whether it’s feasible to screen films in JW3’s hall rather than its much-admired bijou cinema.
It sounds like a mad dilemma, whether we would be willing to enter a building where you can’t even get a cup of coffee for the time being. Since the crux of JW3 is its many social aspects, the loss of Zest strikes a scary blow at what the centre can offer.
Such discussions — not just about catering, but about how to achieve social distancing in a community that barely recognised the concept pre-lockdown — are taking place everywhere. Some shuls are worriedly anticipating being unable to provide High Holy Day services at all, if their current building simply does not allow for a government-approved space between people.
We have discovered, in the pandemic era, a previously unlooked-for facility with technology, allowing us to provide online learning, Zoom bar and batmitzvahs, remote viewing of lectures, and some fantastic volunteering initiatives.
But nothing can substitute for the joy of face-to-face encounters. Even if that is going to be facemask-to-facemask for the next few months, I am desperate for places like Zest to re-open and for what our community does best — arguing, ideally over food .