It has been an exciting month in the life of the Jewish community of London. Following closely on the impressive installation ceremony of the new chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, at the St. Johns Wood Synagogue in the presence of the Prince of Wales, representing the Royal Family, two additional cultural events of importance have taken place.
The first of these has been the opening of the JW3 Jewish community center in Hampstead – Swiss Cottage, followed by the opening of the Football, Faith and Fans exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Camden Town this past week.
The opening of the JW3 was the cause for much discussion within the local Jewish community during the past three years.
Funded almost entirely by the philanthropy of Dame Vivien Duffeld, the estimated cost on completion – including the purchase of the prime real estate site, the construction of the three-story building and the initial recruitment of the staff and preparation of the educational and cultural programs – was an astronomic 50 million pounds sterling.
There were many who argued that the Anglo Jewish community did not need a center along the lines of the JCC’s, which have been an integral part of the North American Jewish communities for decades, while others bemoaned the location, close to but by no means in the center of the main Jewish residential areas of Northwest London, stretching from Finchley and Golders Green through to Edgware, Barnet and, more recently, the leafy suburbs of Boreham Wood and Radlett.
They argued that the money would be better spent by investing in local educational and cultural projects and that, unlike their North American counterparts, the Anglo Jewish community was not structured in such a way as to enable a bipartisan community audience, ranging from the secular to the Orthodox and from the young to old, to come together in one centralized facility for a range of cultural and social activities.
The CEO of the JW3, Raymond Simonson, was, for many years, actively involved in the organization of what has become one of the world’s leading Jewish educational experiences: Limmud. Simonson has stated that one of the intentions of the JW3 is to provide a facility where Limmud-type activities can be experienced almost 7/11 and not limited to a week during the Christmas- New Year vacation or to occasional day-long Limmud conferences at various communities around the country.
It takes time to read through the diverse educational and cultural program for the first period of operation. There is something for everyone, ranging from religion to history, from sports activities to films, and from cultural enrichment to simply a place where people can meet and have a coffee (in a kosher cafeteria, of course). It is not open only to the Jewish community, partially explaining its off-center location, but it is assumed that the vast majority of users will be from within the community.
First indications do, however, show that may others have signed up to use the facilities and to take out membership in the first few weeks of operation.
The opening weekend was a festival attended, according to the JW3 officials, by some 7,000 participants, come to see what all the fuss has been about. The opening was broadcast hourly on local, and even national, media. In contrast to the Jewish tradition of being Jewish on the quiet and away from the glare of publicity, the JW3 opening was nothing if it was not public and loud.
This is a North American-type facility, done in a North American way – full publicity and no apology for being Jewish and proud of it.
Prior to the official opening a “test run” was carried out with a packed audience coming to hear a discussion with the outgoing chief rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, in what was one of his last public events before formally handing over the reins to Mirvis. And in the true spirit of cross-community cooperation, Liberal and Orthodox religious leaders, rabbis Julia Neuberger and Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, were present for the official opening of the facility and the fixing of the mezuzah on the entrance.
JUST TWO weeks later and another wellpublicized event takes place – the official opening of the Football, Fans and Faith exhibition at the Jewish museum. If the JW3 celebrates the Jewish religion and culture, then the FFF exhibition celebrates the links between the Jewish community and that much bigger English religious experience – football.
Following last years publication of Andrew Clavane’s well received book Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here, and the more recent public discussion about the use of the phrase “Tottenham Yids” as a form of anti-Semitism, the exhibition explores the links between the respective histories of the Jewish community in the UK and the beautiful game.
The social and cultural context of Jews participating, supporting and becoming involved in the world’s No. 1 sporting activity is highlighted in this delightful exhibition, which has also received widespread media coverage in the UK. The formal press opening was attended by the two most recent chairmen of the English Football Association, David Bernstein and Lord David Triesman, both of whom are members of the Anglo Jewish community.
Bernstein, the former chairman of Manchester City, came from a family of Holocaust survivors and it was he that persuaded the members of the English team to visit Auschwitz during the last European Championship, held in Poland. Triesman, elevated to the House of Lords because of his lifelong involvement in the Trade Unions movement, is himself a committed supporter of Tottenham, from where he takes the name of his peerage.
No doubt the word “football” will attract many visitors who would not otherwise have visited a Jewish museum and hopefully they will stick around long enough to visit the other permanent exhibitions on Jewish customs and culture and the history of the Jewish community in the UK.
Located in Camden Town, the museum is not in the main Jewish areas of the city but is centrally located and easily accessible for the many school groups who are brought here on visits to acquaint themselves with the Jewish experience, perhaps for the one and only time in their lives.
Communities are rarely built with longterm strategic planning. One could envisage a single Jewish campus in London which would include the JW3, the Jewish Museum, the Ben Uri Art Gallery and perhaps other office and administrative functions of the community. But Jewish communities tend to be mobile and they move on from one neighbourhood to another, from the center of the city to the suburbs, with amazing speed – often in less than a single generation.
The location of both the JW3 and the Jewish Museum are close enough to the main concentrations of the Jewish population to be accessible but without the need to relocate every 20 years or so – as well as accessible to those within the wider community who are more spread out.
THE ANGLO Jewish community is experiencing major cultural renaissance and dynamism. In addition to the mainstream, there has also been rapid demographic growth of the haredi community in London, along with cultural expansion and dynamism of the Reform and Liberal communities which in the past have never been as significant in the UK as they have been in North America. Limmud, the JW3 and the refurbished Jewish Museum are all reflective of this.
It may not be the largest Jewish community in Europe, but it is one which, along with its strong Zionism and support of Israel, has much to offer for the younger generations which will keep them proud of their cultural and religious heritage.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University.
The views expressed are his alone.