A year after JW3 opened, its chief executive talks to Fiona Leckerman about its phenomenal success and future vision. 

Blake Ezra Photography Ltd 2013.

Blake Ezra Photography Ltd 2013.

When JW3 opened 12 months ago, those behind the project hoped to attract 60,000 visitors.

The fact that in its first year it has more than surpassed that figure – with 200,000 people entering the award-winning building – is proof enough that the Jewish cultural centre is at the heart of the community.

The brainchild of the inimitable Dame Vivien Duffield, JW3 was built to fulfil the need in the community for a Jewish arts and cultural centre. Its chief executive Raymond Simonson recounts that prior to the opening of JW3: “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; you have got to have a fantastic programme’.”

He 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 Vivien’s vision that this was going to be a place where every different type of Jew can feel at home.”

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.” 

These entry points can be found in food or via music, through debate, art and theatre. He insists: “We don’t throw it down people’s throats. If you want to wander in have a coffee and read the Jewish News, that’s great. We are not asking for your birth certificate, your ketubah and who your mother was married to – that is not what we are about.”  

When asked what it is about, he replies: “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 community.” 

He heaps praise on his talented team who work tirelessly to fill JW3 with variety.

An important part of this variety can be found in the partnerships forged with other Jewish organisations. 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.

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.”

The plans to merge with the LJCC early next year is proof that unity trumps competition and, as Simonson acknowledges: “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 seeks to support new artists and harness creativity, be it with its amateur dramatic group Spielers that started its first season with only nine people and has grown to 40 regularly attending members.

There is the Amy Levy 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 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, for which 300 young adults came to party on the ‘beach’ in the middle of Finchley Road.

The smaller events that go unpublicised are equally as important, one of which 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. Simonson’s vision for JW3 is ambitious and full of passion. He asserts: “We want to be, and believe we can be, at the heart of a vibrant Jewish community that should be inspired by and engaged in Jewish arts, culture, learning and life, with everything that that encompasses.”

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. 

Fiona Leckerman tweets here: @fionaleckerman