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.
“Twenty-five years ago, I would have been very pessimistic, but a corner has been turned,” said Geoffrey Alderman, an expert on British Jewry at the University of Buckingham. “There is no doubt that there is a cultural renaissance within Anglo Jewry at the moment.”
Exhibit A of the Anglo renaissance is Simonson’s own Limmud, which started 30 years ago as a professional forum for teachers and now draws thousands of participants to a Jewish learning festival each December.
Beyond that there is London’s Jewish Book Week, which grew from a small get-together into a nine-day festival with appearances by best-selling novelists held at the spacious Royal National Hotel. The U.K. Jewish Film Festival breaks attendance records annually, according to organizers.
And then there is the London Jewish Cultural Center, a highbrow institution and lecture forum with an annual membership fee of $2,000 — meaning it caters to a more select clientele.
“There is scarcely a single British university that doesn’t offer at least one course related to Jewish studies,” Alderman said. “This is unprecedented.”
But while the proliferation of options suggests that British Jews have an appetite for cultural offerings, it also means JW3 will have some serious competition as it tries to inject itself into an already crammed Jewish calendar.
“We’ll have to wait and see how it goes with JW3, but it’s obvious that it only has a chance to succeed if it appeals to the widest possible audience,” Alderman said.
Simonson says his organization is committed to offering a diverse menu of programming. Visitors on Oct. 9, for example, will have a choice of 25 activities ranging from a macaroon baking class to a talk featuring author Thomas Harding and his cousin, BBC News director James Harding, about the capture of Nazi war criminal Rudolf Hess.
Kevin Spacey, the Hollywood actor, is scheduled to make an appearance at the center later this year.
“Through JW3, we’re telling people who don’t go to shul or have non-Jewish partners to not disappear from the radar, not to be lost, but to put their toes in the water,” Simonson said. “Come and taste something Jewish that might excite them, that meets the other parts of their identity.”
Simonson acknowledges that kind of openness risks alienating Britain’s sizable, and growing, haredi and Modern Orthodox communities. But the participation in the opening of Ephraim Mirvis, the country’s new chief rabbi, gives Simonson hope that JW3 can be a place of all sectors of London Jewry.
Mirvis’ predecessor, Jonathan Sacks, refrained from attending the interdenominational Limmud conference during his 22 years in office. But Mirvis announced earlier this month that he would be attending Limmud in December.
Mirvis’ office declined JTA’s request for an interview, but Simonson believes his attendance at the JW3 opening was something of a trial balloon.
“It shows that the chief rabbi came and the sky did not fall down,” Simonson says.
Mirvis’ seal of approval may help JW3 with the Modern Orthodox community, but Simonson still does not expect much traffic from haredim, who constitute British Jewry’s fastest growing contingent, according to a 2012 report.
“We’re open to them,” he said, “and I think there are genuinely things in our program that would be attractive. But it would be naive of me to realistically think we’ll have significant numbers of haredi Jews coming here.
“They are by definition set apart from the mainstream, and we’re all about bringing Judaism to the mainstream.”