When a giant pantechnicon rolled up from Arsenal Football Club at London’s JW3 on Wednesday, carrying a staggering four and half tonnes of food destined to relieve food poverty, it was the high point of an extraordinary project by the Jewish Community Centre for London. And it started in the front garden of JW3’s chief executive, Raymond Simonson.
As he explained, JW3 had to make some rapid readjustments when lockdown was imposed and the centre’s Finchley Road building was closed. “We drafted a three-plank strategy as to how we would proceed. We decided to become a virtual community centre, with many on-line events; to be a communal hub for the entire community, so we launched Jewish On-Line; and the third strand was tikkun olam, saving the world, which is part of our mission”.
JW3, its volunteers and staff, have played a large part in outreach work to the local community in north west London, even before the global pandemic. But Raymond and his team felt it was important, despite lockdown, to try to make use of the space in the temporarily vacated building.
“I contacted Camden Council and spoke to the council leader, Georgia Gould, and to Jonathan Simpson, the former mayor of Camden whose brief is community work. Both of them know JW3 well”. There was only one question to consider: how could JW3 help?
At one point there was a plan to turn the centre’s piazza into a car park for NHS staff, but that quickly changed as parking restrictions were relaxed by the council and hospital parking became available.
Instead, JW3 wanted to ensure that whatever they did with their space would be to meet a genuine need. As the talks with Camden Council proceeded, Raymond was briefly diverted by a separate success, the Yellow Candle project.
The Yellow Candles are an annual project that asks people to remember those who died in the Holocaust. When JW3 closed, not all the candles had been given out: so a staffer took them home and then Raymond, networking through his friends, his children’s school, and on social media, put 700 candles in his front garden and they were snapped up in less than a week.
“I thought, if people will come for candles, maybe they will help with food, too”. Using the same low-key networking, he put a crate in his garden and asked people to donate. Very soon he had a full crate of food and the project, to collect and distribute food to those who could not afford it, was gently snowballing.
But things really took off about three weeks ago when Camden Council contacted Raymond “out of the blue. They said, we have one tonne of food which we were not expecting and we have already delivered to our food banks, which are now full. It will go to waste — but if we can get it to JW3, can you distribute it from there?”
Within about 15 minutes, under the supervision of JW3’s social action co-ordinator, Jacob Forman, the project was agreed. The next day, the centre opened to receive Camden’s first delivery, of the promised one tonne, followed by a further half tonne, representing about 3,500 meals’ worth of food.
JW3 had already been working through the year with a small local voluntary organisation, Feast, which cooks for people who are homeless or in food poverty. Lockdown meant that their kitchen where they normally prepared meals was closed; so JW3 opened its demonstration kitchen. Soon volunteers were preparing meals for Feast clients and then for people who were service users of JAMI, the mental health service for the Jewish community. (JW3’s restaurant chefs and staffers have been working at Jewish Care during lockdown).
And because of its continuing local outreach work, JW3 had a number of partner organisations and soon identified several hundred people who either needed cooked meals or food parcels. “So for the last three weeks we have been getting food from wherever we can, donations, people who have established collection points in their own neighbourhoods and brought filled boxes to JW3, and then if we can get food donated by one of the big companies, we added that in”.
As if this were not enough, Raymond’s team believed they could do more, and told Camden Council as much. So —once again at short notice — Camden asked JW3 to become the central food hub for the north of the borough. JW3 welcomed a gigantic lorry on Wednesday from Arsenal Football Club’s Foundation, carrying 10 pallets of food, thought to represent 15,000 meals. Much of the food has been collected for Arsenal from the three boroughs with which it works, Camden, Islington and Hackney.
Once at JW3 the food is sorted, wrapped and packed by volunteers, and then distributed to people in need. “This is chesed — lovingkindness — in action”, says Raymond Simonson. Deliveries of this scale will now arrive at JW3 on a weekly basis for the foreseeable future, though no-one is sure whether such levels can be maintained once the building reopens fully.
For the time being, however, the Arsenal lorry will be a welcome sight on the JW3 forecourt. Marc Nohr, JW3’s chair, said he was really proud of the initiative: “This work embodies the six core values of JW3 that underpin all the charity’s work: community, inclusivity, creativity, lovingkindness, collaboration and leading by example. We have found ways to use our best resources — our people, our building and our network of partners — to play our part in a meaningful way”.
Cllr Jonathan Simpson, Camden Council’s cabinet member for promoting culture and communities, said: “Camden’s voluntary sector is playing a crucial role in supporting those most vulnerable during the COVID-19 crisis. Raymond and all the volunteers at JW3 are making a huge difference getting food to thousands in need during this period. It’s humbling to see their hard work and dedication to helping others.”
Alan Sefton MBE, head of Arsenal in the Community, said: “We are very proud to be able to support our communities during this challenging time. Working with local partners and supporting councils, we have been able to deliver over 150,000 meals to date (there have been six deliveries in other boroughs, but only one so far to JW3) and we are exploring how we can sustain these essential deliveries.
“This aligned community response is the result of a lot of hard work and collaboration with a number of local organisations. By working together, we hope we can continue to identify and support those most vulnerable in our local community.”