Who are the people and organisations that make our community tick? Stephen Oryszczuk goes behind the scenes to discover what life is like at Anglo-Jewry’s most famous locations. This week he’s at JW3… [divider]
THIS MAY look like a toilet,” the sign above the flush says. “But it is in fact a finely-honed global resource conservation device.”
If ever a centre’s pulse was reflected in its lavatory, it is here at JW3, where a flush costs less.
But let not that image linger, dear reader.
This glitzy new £50million Finchley Road venue has not spent the money it has to be known for its loos. Nor should it be. There is much more to this site.
Visually, it is remarkable. In the words of one Guardian columnist clearly gunning for a Pulitzer, it “hovers like a low-slung liner, its long ribbons of windows separated by crisp bands of white concrete”.
Sure. At least it’s not a replica of that brutalist fortress-like monstrosity in Manhattan on which it’s modelled. JW3’s glass front and lack of gateway heavies, by contrast, seems to beckon you in. So I oblige.
It’s late morning and I’m sitting in the JW3 café Zest talking to a Glaswegian events curator (Mekella) about an American projectionist she’s just interviewed while being served by a Polish waitress reporting to a Mauritian-Jamaican catering manager.
For a centre playing up its focus on diversity, this United Nations ensemble is perfectly fitting, but top dog is local lad Raymond Simonson. Both he and his sideburns hail from the East End, and this Essex boy seems the perfect choice to steer the JW3 ship into 2014.
My visit, coming shortly after the centre’s launch last year, saw the staff at full stretch. It’s been a stressful time, Simonson says, one that proved too much for some, with the production manager jumping ship three days before the grand opening.
“That caused stress on a whole bunch of people,” he says. “I told everyone it was OK. Then I had to make it OK.” He did, and he has. The work ethic of JW3’s people is a credit to this father-of-two’s style.
My leisurely mid-morning start stands starkly next to Raymond’s 8am arrival, at which time he was blasting through 85 emails and holding an impromptu meeting with director of programming Colin Bulka, himself newly arrived from Israel.
“I left at midnight last night and that was an early finish,” says a still-smiling Raymond, after I finally claw him away from intrigued visitors.
“I’m even working when I’m not,” he says. “This morning, when I dropped the kids at school, parents grabbed me, asking about the website and tickets. I don’t mind, but thank goodness for Shabbat!”
Despite an agonising year-long handover, JW3 is now the former Limmud man’s domain.
Within this vast empire sits the events team, whose members are busy seeking screening rights, organising a girl band for International Women’s Day, planning the rigging for a jazz-funk gig and speaking to producers about an alternative look at Passover.
“I lose my sense of time here,” says Mekella, after telling me about her dizzying diary. Behind the building’s shiny façade, there is still that standard office space and standard office activity, with meetings, typing, calling and schmoozing.
In the corner, over a coffee, two coordinators assess last night’s event. A 300-capacity room had been used to host 130 visitors, so a respectable turnout felt poor because of the cavernous space.
“It’s a learning point,” they say, echoing the relaxed professionalism that their leader exudes.
In the IT suite, staff fine tune Artefact, the scheduling software that seems to be causing some headaches.
With about 1,300 sessions per quarter, this programme is vital plumbing, with events organisers inputting the who-what-where and the back office then crunching the numbers.
“Oops, I’ve broken it,” says Artefact trainer Lucy, staring at the screen and clicking the mouse ineffectually. “Oh no, wait, hang on a minute… It’s fine.”
JW3ers don’t disappear behind closed doors to conduct their meetings – they pull up a pew in Zest instead. One such rendezvous is with Liat Rosenthal, who deals with community programming. “I was a puppeteer before I became a professional Jew,” she says, after completing supervision with Ava.
Later I catch up with Josh, one of two head chefs busy putting the finishing touches to a new Israeli menu.
Sitting down to eat, the waitress recommends a Middle Eastern dish called Dukkah comprising crusted salmon, cumin-roasted butternut, green lentils, avocado and something called pilpelchuma, as Josh admits “it’s still a bit chaotic.”
Despite the long hours, he seems genuinely enthusiastic about the challenge. The fish man was selling cheap tuna this morning, he says, so he bought a bucket load and now needs to work out what to do with it.
“It’s difficult to plan,” he says. “You could get 50 people in, or 250. It happened last week. We’d sold out by 2pm.”
Upstairs, a posse of creative and technical types discuss rigging requirements and preparation time, with one declaring that “I can do it so long as nobody disturbs me the whole day”. Another complains that two people rigging simultaneously is “a complete scrum”.
As they talk about what’s needed, “bean bags for puppet tales” are mentioned alongside “lanterns” (techie for stage lighting), “mics,” “mixers” and “floating PAs”.
It’s a strange, jargon-filled world this lot inhabit, so Gabrielle, Alex and Tali on reception/box office are something of a saving grace, as is the soothing sound of Tal’s accent, which can partially but not wholly be traced to Denmark.
The daylight hours are fading, as am I, as Rachel Mars wizzes past on her way to commission something and resident artist Jacqeline Nichols loads up her resources. Intriguingly, these include peanut butter.
It’s time for me to pack up too, and leave this team to rattle through their risk assessments and posters campaigns.
I commend their energy, which Raymond says comes from the café’s Red Bull Houmous.
Before I leave, I nip to the bathroom to use the finely-honed global resources conservation device, determining that we have what will soon be a finely-honed resource that should not only conserve the community but grow it and show it off.
With that, I flush my worries away.