Take Woody Allen, add a side of schmaltz, hold God
TEN years in the making, London's first purpose-built Jewish community and cultural centre has finally opened its doors, and it is unlike any other Jewish building in the city. On an otherwise grim stretch of Finchley Road in north-west London, and accessible via a slender bridge, the elegant new glass-fronted, four-storey centre is designed to appeal to people of all ages, Jew and non-Jew alike. Its opening weekend drew large crowds for classes in krav maga (an Israeli form of self defense) and cooking demonstrations. Afterwards people gathered in the spacious cafe and restaurant and the large sheltered piazza, where the noise of the street was muffled to a subtle hum.
The launch of JW3, as the centre is called, comes at a time when many of London's 200,000 Jews have become disengaged from Judaism. Increasing secularisation, dispersal and inter-marriage have played a part, along with a sense that “'if I don't live my life this way then I'm not Jewish,’” explains Raymond Simonson, the centre's enthusiastic chief executive. As a cultural centre—and not a place of worship—JW3 aims to create a sense of community by reflecting the diversity of Jewish life in the city. "I think we're offering Jews a way back in who may have been moving away," he says. "They'll say 'I don't want to go to synagogue, I don't believe in God, I don't fast on Yom Kippur, but hang on, you're doing a Woody Allen festival'."
JW3 is the brainchild of Dame Vivien Duffield, a British arts philanthropist who visited several Jewish community centres in New York a decade ago and wondered why there was nothing similar in Britain. "We are a city not only with a large Jewish population but with a lot of people coming in and out from other countries," says Nick Viner, who has led the project alongside Dame Vivien since 2006, when it was still just an idea. "JW3 offers a great opportunity to showcase artistic talent and to bring people together."
Yet many of London's Jews resisted the idea for a centre. "People were sceptical and didn't see the need for it," says Mr Viner, "they couldn't see what it would be and how it would work." But £50m later (80% of which was donated by the Duffield Clore Foundation) the centre has become a reality. "Now that it's built those same people are saying 'Why didn't you build it in my area?'" laughs Mr Simonson.
With its cinema, dance studios, concert hall, restaurant (run by Ottolenghi-trained chefs), nursery and large outdoor piazza—and with the Camden Arts Centre just across the road—JW3 aspires to become a new cultural hub. The centre's opening programme is ambitious, with no fewer than 1,400 events over three months, from live performances (comedy, music, theatre) to talks with Nicholas Hytner, Kevin Spacey, Zoe Wanamaker and David Puttnam. Classes in yoga, ballet and bridge run alongside workshops in kosher cooking and psychoanalysis and Judaism. "We are seeking to be a little bit of the Southbank in north-west London, a little bit of the Barbican, but with a Jewish twist," explains Mr Simonson. "When I filter [Kevin] Spacey through a Jewish lens, what I get is a topic like the powers of arts to transform community."
Given its strong cultural and community bent, the centre is not limited to Jews. "Anyone can come in here, member or not, and anyone can be a member, Jewish or not," says Mr Simonson. "In the Jewish community in London there is no other building like that." The same can be said of the centre's novel architecture. Alex Lifschutz, whose firm designed the space, says the building is glass-fronted so that passersby can see what's going on at all hours of the day. "The message is 'come and have a look and contribute, whether you're Jewish or not'," he says. The building's distance from the street grants it some security, and its entrance bridge takes the place of ordinary turnstiles or barriers.
Running the centre will be a "delicate balancing act," says Larry Trachtenberg, a local resident. He applauds JW3 as a "significant development for the Jewish community", but argues that it must be seen as a wider resource and not just a Jewish resource. This concern is echoed by other residents, Jewish and not. Mr Simonson and his team will also have to watch out for a possible "tipping point" over which the centre could lose its Jewish identity if it "tries to be all things to all people". But the response has been largely positive. For all the anxiety about British Jews leaving the fold, many see this centre as a sign of a new Jewish cultural renaissance.
Appeared on economist.com, 7 October 2013