By Raymond SIMONSON, CEO, JW3.
Something very exciting is happening in London that is also pretty radical for British Jewry: We’re about to raise our heads above the parapet in a way that I don’t think we’ve ever really done before.
With the opening of JW3 on 29 September, London will suddenly have a very public, open building that is clearly identified with, and of, the Jewish community. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying there aren’t other Jewish venues open to non-Jews on a regular basis.
Vast numbers of non-Jewish people visit Jewish museums, tour old historic sites of Jewish interest – including old synagogues, cemeteries and the like – and read fascinating books in world-class Jewish libraries.
For non-Jews, these places offer a view of Jewish life as something different to day-to-day UK life; to view as an exhibition or as a curiosity. I’m excited that when JW3 opens its doors, we will offer a chance for anyone –Jewish or not– to experience and participate in the very best of liv- ing Jewish arts, culture, learning and community.
For the non-Jewish majority of London, I want JW3 to take Jewish life out of the history books, TV documentaries, exhibition cases, cemeteries and news items that the British public is more used to encountering it, and instead offer it in full 3D, surround sound, Technicolor, to be experienced and enjoyed, not merely observed or studied. That for me is one of the important, if ambitious, aspects of this project. It’s not because I spend my time worrying about what non-Jews think about us, but because of the positive impact this can have on the Jewish community itself.
Let me explain what I mean.
For four decades I’ve lived in a community that at times seems scared of its own shadow. So often in the past century, the message has been that we need to keep our heads down and not make too much of a fuss. Not to be too ‘Jewy’ in public.
For years, the fear of coming across as foreign or any suspicion of not being 100 percent ‘loyal to the Queen’ dominated much communal rhetoric. Even today, there are committed, involved, communal Jews who are embarrassed when they see the Charedim of Stamford Hill, partly because, well, they look too Jewish –so very different from the archetypal Englishman – with their ‘strange’ ways, God forbid anyone might associate me with those types of foreign Jews, oy! And how many Jewish buildings in the UK have a large visible mezuzah on their outside door?
How many have a large sign with the word JEWISH as part of the organisation’s name on it?
London is a world apart from New York, Los Angeles or Tel Aviv in this respect. Take a walk down 5th Avenue or Ben Yehuda Street and count how many of the shops, banks and businesses had larger, more beautiful and more obvious mezuzot on their doors than almost any Jewish communal building I’ve seen in London.
It fills me with pride when I walk down those streets, a pride that contradicts the received wisdom of my childhood in which English Jews mostly regarded American Jews – and too often Israelis –as rather vulgar and too loudly Jewish. I want to break definitively with the era in which fear of anti-Semitism and the desire to be ‘good Englishmen and women’ led to a culture where we have turned the Jewish volume dial right down low.
Now it’s time to turn up the volume to 11! I’ve been encouraged by the few exceptions in recent years, such as when thousands of Jews gather to light Chanukah candles in Trafalgar Square or demonstrate their solidarity with Israel. But let’s be honest, these are noticeable because they are unusual.
And we have some fantastic festivals of Jewish culture held in public venues, with non-Jews attending – in particular the wonderful Jewish Book Week and UK Jewish Film festival – but again, these are annual and for short periods.
Now it is time to move from a few annual pockets of public celebration of Jewish life, to have a year-round celebration. That’s where JW3 comes in. Thanks to the vision and philanthropy of Dame Vivien Duffield and others, we’ve just built a 35,000 sq ft building, and stuck up in letters over 7ft high across the windows of the entire top floor a sign that says “JW3 The New Postcode for Jewish Life” – that’s turning up the volume!
That’s sticking our head above the parapet and saying “say it loud, I’m Jewish and proud!” We got the predictable calls from those of the mindset of yesteryear asking us to immediately remove the signs, lest people realise this is a Jewish centre. I’m delighted to note, though, that the times are a-changing, because an awful lot more people contacted us to say how proud they are when they pass that sign on the bus.
My chest fills with pride every day when I arrive for work. But more importantly, JW3 gives London a permanent centre that offers a programme as diverse as the community in which it is based, and that will increase the quality, variety, and as importantly, the volume of Jewish conversation in London and beyond. And that really excites me.
Of course, the quality and variety are as important as the volume. Too often, the quality of public Jewish debate around the community is poor and doesn’t reflect the impressiveness of the thinking, knowledge and understanding that exists within it.
One only has to follow any debate in the press, on social media or at many Jewish events on topics such as Israel, the role of women and the different Jewish denominations, to see how quickly it descends into a playground squabble, where whoever shouts loudest wins. Surely we’re better than that? At JW3, I want the quality of conversations that are inspired to be like those around the most interesting dinner tables, the most intelli- gent yeshivas, and the most probing board tables.
I was greatly encouraged by what the outgoing Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks said to a packed audience at JW3 recently: “People will come together here with or without religious commitment of different kinds, enjoy Jewish food, Jewish arts, Jewish cinema, and Jewish music and just be Jewish ethnically and culturally. That is also who we are and it is important to remember who we are.”
Lord Sacks understands that while enriching Jewish conversation should be about Torah and Talmud, it might also be about food, film, music, art, politics or much more. There is Jewish interest and a Jewish angle in everything under the sun, and we want to broaden people’s horizons and perceptions of what Jews talk and think about.
So I invite you all to come and join the conversation at JW3. With more than a thousand activities and events in our Launch Season, which kicks off on Sunday 29 September, I promise you’ll find something that’s just up your street.