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The seed for this historic departure from Jewish life in the British mode was planted a little more than a decade ago, when philanthropist Dame Vivien Duffield visited New York. Touring the JCC in Manhattan, on the borough’s Upper West Side, she realized that London had nothing to compare to it or to other institutions, like the 92nd Street Y.
On her return, she fought to convince British Jews that this should change, eventually bringing politicians and communal leaders round.
It wasn’t an easy sell. After the plans were unveiled, concerns about the project as it progressed were aired in the pages of the Jewish Chronicle, British Jewry’s newspaper of record.
“It’s a great idea,” enthused Andrew Gilbert, the chairman of Britain’s Reform movement as the project launched, in 2003. “But…my belief is that the Orthodox rabbinate in this country will destroy it. If it succeeds, it will have to fundamentally change the nature of cross-communal interaction in the community.”
A few years later, when the economic crisis led to a suspension of work on the project, Allan Morgenthau, then vice-president of the London Jewish Cultural Centre, commented, “A lot of donors feel that money is required for social services, which are under enormous pressure.”
But ten years and some $76 million of Duffield’s and other donors’ money later, such skepticism is, for now at least, in abeyance. Both supporters and those who have harbored doubts are waiting to see London’s response to the imminent unfolding of a strikingly rich inaugural program: 1,000 events over the first few months, bringing in art, drama, film and more.
Hollywood actor Kevin Spacey will be stopping by, as will Nicholas Hytner, director of the National Theatre, acclaimed author Edmund De Waal and myriad others. To attract those for whom participation comes via the stomach, there will be a kosher restaurant, helmed by chefs who previously worked for Yotam Ottolenghi, the Israeli-born master chef. “We will offer a chance to experience the very best of living Jewish arts, culture, learning, community and life,” Simonson said.
With a tree-lined piazza, a plush 60-seat screening room, an auditorium that converts into a function room, a kindergarten, a rehearsal space and offices, the London JCC is clearly different from anything the community has had before in scale and style — a reality evident to advance visitors on preview tours, even as construction workers in hard hats put together the finishing touches.
Duffield wants JW3 to become one of London’s key cultural landmarks for Jews and non-Jews alike. That includes especially “people who are Jewish but have forgotten,” she said at an invitation-only preview event in July. She expressed the hope that the center’s offerings will entice them to dip in again.