When JW3 opened its doors 12 months ago those behind the ground breaking project hoped to attract 60,000 visitors, Chief Executive Raymond Simonson reveals that in its first year JW3 has more than surpassed that figure with a total of 200,000 pairs of feet entering the award winning JW3 building. As London’s only Jewish community centre celebrates its first anniversary, Raymond Simonson takes a look back at its phenomenal success, the impact it has made and his vision for its future.
The brain child of the inimitable Dame Vivian Duffy, JW3 was to fulfil the need in the community for a Jewish arts and cultural centre. Prior to the opening of JW3, Simonson recounts “People kept using the term if you build it they will come. I started to get nervous about that line before we opened, I thought if you build it they will come the first time, but it’s not enough, to make them come back again and again, as we have been then you have got to have a fantastic programme.”
Simonson explains “The point of the building was to build a house and the point of the programme was to turn the house into a home.” The feeling of home resonates as he says “it was part of Dame Vivian’s vision that this was going to be a place where every different type of Jew can feel at home and can feel comfortable.”
He talks of how satisfying it is to see a busy building, filled with “the widest range of people coming through the doors that the community has ever seen.” He says “JW3 is providing multiple entry points into Jewish life in a non threatening way. We are not saying this is the way to live your Jewish life, if you want to engage in being Jewish then we want to find a way to bring you in.”
These entry points can be found in food or via music, through debate or through art and theatre. He insists “We don’t throw it down peoples’ throats, if you want to wander in have a coffee and read the Jewish News, that’s another entry into Jewishness, we are not asking for your birth certificate, your katuba and who your mother was married to, that is not what we are about.” When asked what it is about, he answers “it’s having a home for Jewish art, culture, learning and Jewish life.”
How does JW3 compile such a full programme? Simonson says “The diversity of the programme reflects the diversity of the community.” He heaps praise on his talented team who work tirelessly and as enthusiastically as Simonson to fill JW3 with variety. An important part of this variety can be found in the partnerships forged with other Jewish organisations. He mentions the Jewish Music Institute and how JW3 have given Kletzma in the Park a home, he picks out the UK Jewish Film Festival where one no longer has to wait a year to see 10 days worth of films when you can view Jewish films all year round in the JW3 cinema. He includes Jewish Book Week and excitedly talks about the launch of the first ever Jewish Comedy Festival.
Of these collaborations he says “We believe in the value of partnerships and that we are not in competition. We’ve seen what happened with the Tricycle and it’s a reminder that it’s great and important to have Jewish culture in mainstream non Jewish venues but we now have for the first time in the history of our community a great Jewish arts venue, where the very best in Jewish comedy and music has a home and is not going to be turned away.”
The recent plans to merge of the LJCC and JW3 by early next year, is proof that unity trumps competition and as Simonson says “we could all see that there are so many exciting synergies between these two strong, successful organisations, that it would be wrong not to do everything we can to make this merger happen.”
JW3 also seek to support new artists and harness creativity, be it with their amateur dramatic group Spiellers that started its first season with only 9 people and has grown to 40 regularly attending members. There is the Amy Levi prize for literature that proffers a chance for young unpublished Jewish writers to be recognised and then the Jewish comedian of the year competition. In the future there are plans to run comedy, film making and play writing workshops. Simonson explains “this is a place that is not just about consuming culture, it’s about creating culture.”
Simonson’s top highlights of the year are the opening launch, which was covered by the BBC. He reminisces about the success of the ice rink and the beach as well as the sell out young professionals’ beach party that saw 300 young adults coming to party on the beach in the middle of the Finchley road.
The smaller events that go unpublicised are equally as big in importance, one of these was the programme In the Loop, where a group of teenage girls from South Hampstead School came every week to teach a group of elderly Jewish people how to use Facebook and Skype and taught them how to set up their own emails.
Simonson’s vision for JW3 is ambitious and full of passion “We want to be and believe we can be at the heart of a vibrant, unified, diverse Jewish community and we think that that community should be inspired by and engaged in Jewish arts, culture, learning and life, with everything that that encompasses. We are about a continual revival and renaissance of the Jewish community.”
Moving in to its second year the future is an exciting one for JW3 and for the Jewish community, who are now fortunate to have such a diverse, inspiring, warm cultural home to call their own.