The Chief Rabbi has hailed the new Jewish community centre as a “paradigm-shifting institution” and expressed hopes that the Finchley Road facility will bring together community members from across the religious spectrum.

Lord Sacks took part in JW3’s very first event last Thursday, during which he and the project’s founder Dame Vivien Duffield discussed culture and community in front of an audience of more than 250. The event was chaired by the Times associate editor Daniel Finkelstein.

Recalling his support a decade ago for the ambitious proposals for such a centre in London, the Chief Rabbi told the gathering: “I realised that Vivien was Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams, “Build it and they will come”. The reaction to her was the same as to Costner: you are crazy! If it’s really crazy and everyone is against it that is a project you just have to support. I have seen JCCs have transformative effects on communities. They bring something to a community that that just wasn’t there before.”

Artist’s Impression of JW3 (credit: Visualhouse)

He also stressed the importance of understanding that “not everyone identifies by going to or belonging to a shul”. Lord Sacks, pointing out that Jews were uniquely both a nation and a religion, said there were times when religion had held WORLD Jewry together and other times when “religion divides us and just being ethnically Jewish unites us. I think that what’s going to happen at JW3. People will come together with or with our religious commitment of different kinds, enjoy Jewish food, arts, music and just be Jewish ethnically and culturally”.

While JW3 will host Friday night dinners and may even hold an event to break the Yom Kippur fast, Dame Vivien ruled out holding religious service by any denomination. The Chief Rabbi added that it’s important that JW3 stays “neutral space” free from arguments that can sometimes arise around religious services.

Asked her to describe her dream event at the new centre, Dame Vivien said she would like to see an interfaith gathering with the Chief Rabbi in conversation with the Archbishop of Canterbury and Muslim leaders. Moreover, she would like to see a public discussion featuring the Chief Rabbi and progressive figures. Lord Sacks’ imminent departure means such an event could not take place before he leaves office but his response of “bring it on” suggested he would have been open to the idea – which, though he has enjoyed regular contacts with leaders of other denominations over the past two decades, would be a landmark moment.

JW3 Test Event

Lord Sacks at JW3’s first event on Thursday

Dame Vivien told the audience: “I thought there wasn’t ten years ago a place where Jews of all strands could meet I wanted to have a place where everybody could come.; where the liberals could meet the religious; where the non-believers could meet Muslim and Christians.”

She had met considerable opposition to her idea of a JCC in London from those unable to see where the money would come from or felt their shul community centres were already doing the same job. And she added: “Without the Chief Rabbi we wouldn’t be here.”