Raymond Simonson Chief Executive, JW3
Chanukah has always been one of my favourite times of the year for so many reasons – and not just because of the daily dosage of latkes, sufganiyot (doughnuts) and, if I’m lucky, gifts. What I really love is how we approach our celebrations and what that says about us as a community.
I live and work in a British-Jewish community that I have for years critiqued as focusing too much on keeping its head down, looking over our shoulder at who might be out to get us and trying not to be too noisy.
So, naturally, I take delight in travelling round London at this time of year seeing large public Chanukiot lit up from Gants Hill to Golders Green and Highbury to Hendon.
To experience thousands of Jews singing and celebrating in Trafalgar Square is to witness what used to be a rare thing in this community – a very public display of Jewishness by a significant number of Jews willing to turn the volume up. And I love it when British Jewry does things that many would find atypical of British Jewry.
A few years ago, when I was executive director of Limmud, I argued with a journalist from Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz. Despite his praise for much about the event, he wrote an article asking: “Does Limmud reflect a false picture of British Jewry?” He suggested it was a false “bubble… an isolated island of Jewish enlightenment and openness”, and very un-British-Jewish-like tolerance, partnerships and positivity.
I knew, even as I was arguing with him, that in many ways he was right. So instead I argued that what he was experiencing was a microcosm of a British Jewry that could be, even if it didn’t quite exist yet.
Five years later, this Chanukah, I’m enjoying the chag more than ever, as I think back to those conversations and feel confident I am part of a community ever more confident about shining our light in public. I am proud of the role JW3 plays in that.
We currently have our own extra-large Chanukiah proudly on display outside the building on an upper floor balcony, where some 700,000 vehicles will pass by during the festival.
That level of openness is not typical of Jewish communal buildings in the past, but is part of our mission to transform the Jewish landscape.
Of course, this past year has been particularly trying.
Last summer saw the highest recorded levels of anti-Semitic incidents in this country. There was a feeling that public displays of Jewishness, let alone public associations with Israel, were for the brave or foolish.
Yet during July and August, more than 17,000 people enjoyed themselves at JW3’s pop-up Tel Aviv beach in the very public space of our piazza, overlooked by the busiest non-motorway road in Europe. And now, as reported in these pages last week, we’re working hard to do something else that our community doesn’t do too often – bring together two proud, successful organisations in a merger that better utilises communal resources.
Leaving egos at the door and nostalgia and emotion to the side, the leadership of the LJCC and JW3 may just have pulled off our very own minor miracle by agreeing the key terms to ensure this merger happens. It hasn’t been easy.
It would be easier for some if we didn’t do it. People rarely like change and there is no doubt this merger will lead to plenty of it. We cannot predict every outcome for every one of the thousands of individuals these two organisations currently reach every week. But having spent hundreds of hours working on this so far, we have great faith that the outcome will be of benefit for generations to come.
It will make the overall offering wider, stronger and more sustainable. We can combine the best of what the LJCC has built over the past three decades with everything that brings more than 4,500 people to JW3 each week. We will create a thriving community centre offering the best in Jewish arts, culture, education and community.
The late Rabbi David Hartman taught that the miracle of Chanukah wasn’t that the oil lasted an additional seven days beyond the first, but rather that our ancestors even lit the first wick at all, without being certain the light would last long enough.
The miracle was their leap of faith. They took the first step even though they could not be sure how it would unfold. We’re still celebrating the success of that decision to this day, in the loudest, proudest and most public demonstrations of our identity.
My hope this Chanukah is that the community will share our leap of faith and embrace the changes that the merger of LJCC and JW3 will bring to ensure Jewish identity, knowledge and culture is explored, strengthened and celebrated in a myriad of ways throughout the year – for generations to come.