London — Finchley Road, which stretches across London’s northern suburbs, is one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares. Day and night, cars crawl along it, passing supermarkets, furniture stores, a popular multiplex and, lately, a vast construction site for a new project now nearing completion.
What’s about to be unveiled here is broadcast loud and clear by the sign alongside the site. This is to be the home of “a new postcode for Jewish life,” the sign announces — the United Kingdom’s first Jewish Community Centre.
Known popularly as JW3 — a play on the well-known NW3 postal code in which it sits — the JCC takes up 35,000 square feet on four stories. Its opening, set for September 29, will mark a historic moment in British Jewry’s self-definition — and not just because British Jews will have a state-of-the-art, multidimensional cultural center. Unlike New York, where Jewishness seems almost an extension of the city’s identity, Anglo-Jewish life, up to now, has tended to be quieter and more understated.
But JW3, in the words of its outgoing chief executive, Nick Viner, who was in charge of the project’s development stage, is about giving Anglo-Jewry some of the “exuberance of our cousins across the Atlantic.”
For all the waves that Jews have made in Great Britain in entertainment, science and politics, Jewish communal institutions — synagogues, student centers and meeting places — remain broadly beyond the gaze of the wider population. This is partly for security, but it goes deeper. Perhaps as a legacy of Europe’s history, British Jews, as Jews, try to keep their heads down.
“One only has to study the British Jewish press throughout most of the 20th century to appreciate that Jewish leadership put a lot of energy into reminding Jews to be as British as possible,” said Raymond Simonson, the JCC’s new CEO. “I grew up understanding how English Jews mostly regarded U.S. Jews as a bit too loudly Jewish.”
Things have changed on that front lately. Nowadays there are public Hanukkah lightings, Israel rallies and yearly Jewish cultural festivals. But the opening of the JCC as a permanent fixture offering its cultural fare to all of London will mark a boost in the community’s profile by several orders of magnitude.
“It is fairly radical,” Simonson admitted. “I want JW3 to take Jewish life out of the history books and documentaries and exhibition cases, and offer it in full 3-D, surround sound, Technicolor.”
Some still question whether Jewish Londoners need another cultural venue, with the high-brow London Jewish Cultural Centre — which has decades of experience running a successful program — a few miles in one direction, and the thriving Jewish Museum a few miles in the other. With Jewish Book Week and UK Jewish Film, fundraising events, youth movement programs and synagogue-based educational courses, London Jewry already has a crammed calendar — for a community a fraction of the size of New York.
But until now, London has never seen a sprawling Jewish space that attempts to do everything, in the American style: film, dance, food, art, education, highbrow, lowbrow, kindergarten, office space and more, pitched to the affiliated and unaffiliated alike.