London's New American-Style JW3 Community Center Opens to Great Expectations

Can Hotspot Lure 60,000 Paying Members?

Grand Opening: Models portraying Adam and Eve at the Genesis-themed opening of London’s JW3 Jewish community center.
(Blake Ezra Photography
Grand Opening: Models portraying Adam and Eve at the Genesis-themed opening of London’s JW3 Jewish community center.

By Cnaan Liphshiz

Published October 01, 2013.
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(JTA) — At his office in London’s newly opened, $80 million Jewish community center, Raymond Simonson fumbles with a state-of-the-art telephone switchboard.

“Sorry, I’m embarrassed, but we’ve only just moved into our offices,” says Simonson, the 40-year-old boss of London’s first American-style JCC, which opened Sunday. “Now the article will say ‘New CEO can’t even answer his own phone.’ ”

With his credentials, Simonson can afford to be self-deprecating. The former director of the Jewish learning fest Limmud, Simonson steered the organization through the 2008 financial crisis, helping it to emerge as a vibrant global brand with an annual budget of $1.6 million that scholars of British Jewry call the flagship of a communal renaissance.

Now he wants to do something similar with the new community center, a centrally located four-story behemoth called JW3 — a play on the local postcode, NW3 — which was built with a one-time $56 million grant by a single donor, the philanthropist Vivien Duffield.

But with Duffield now stepping back from the organization, Simonson has to build a constituency among Londoners for a kind of Jewish institution with which they are largely unfamiliar.

“This is now for the community to decide if they truly want to keep the gift,” Simonson told JTA.

Duffield, the daughter of the late business magnate Charles Clore, initiated the project after visiting the JCC in Manhattan a decade ago and deciding that London’s approximately 200,000 Jews also should have a one-stop shop for all things Jewish. The London center has space for a kindergarten, movie theater, sports facilities, kosher restaurant and a library.

All that space requires a paying customer base, and for the past two years, JW3’s staff of 45 has been working to build one. A huge banner that says “JW3 The New Postcode for Jewish Life” hangs from the building’s facade.

Simonson, a chummy Londoner who takes pride in his ginger facial hair (his Twitter handle is FatSideburns), aims to enroll 60,000 members the first year at a cost of $72 annually. JW3 has limited cash reserves, so if JW3 fails to attract a significant amount of paying members, Simonson says the organization will run out of money in about two years.


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