It opened with much fanfare three years ago, and thousands of concerts, performances and events later, JW3 has become a hub of the city’s Jewish life. But it isn’t just running events — it is also changing mindsets.

London is a city where, unless you know the Jewish scene, you may find it hard to locate the buildings that keep the community ticking. Many are intentionally anonymous-looking, lacking signage. Even synagogues are often located down alleyways, not visible from main streets. JW3 — a JCC for a city that never had one — couldn’t be more different.

It is an enormous glass-fronted building, clearly marked as Jewish, seen by millions of passersby every year. “This building responds to a critique of British Jewry,” says Raymond Simonson, the center’s CEO, sitting in the on-site restaurant that has wooed even the British media’s restaurant connoisseurs. “We are a very conservative community and are often accused of being scared of our own shadow.

“You can walk past a Jewish building 100 times and not even realize it’s there. This building is such a bold statement, on the busiest non-highway road in Britain, with a glass front through which people can see lively Jewish activities going on.” The name is a spin on the JCC’s Finchley Road location, with its NW3 postal code designation.

JW3’s well-regarded restaurant Zest. Blake Ezra

JW3’s well-regarded restaurant Zest.
Blake Ezra

Simonson is buoyant, despite the freezing weather and the fact that, at this time of year, it seems to get dark in London almost as soon as the sun rises. A few hours earlier there had been a discussion on the UK’s leading radio news magazine about JW3’s comedy festival. Simonson says: “This place is an antidote to the kvetching side to British Jewry — when all you normally hear about Jews in the media is about anti-Semitism, and that we think Jeremy Corbyn [leader of the Labour Party] is out to get us.”

As Simonson talks, a team outside is erecting an ice rink that will pull in a big crowd of Jewish visitors, ranging from completely secular to ultra-Orthodox, over the coming weeks. Preparations are taking place for a talk by former Mideast negotiator Dennis Ross in the evening, and people are buying tickets for a cinema screening. There are classes and workshops, and mothers who know each other from their antenatal classes are gathered in the café section of the restaurant, with their babies and strollers.

The center has exceeded expectations, with around 4,500 visits a week, and Simonson wants to see more tourists taking advantage of the place. People flying in for a vacation or a rushed work trip aren’t going to subscribe to a course of classes, but they can check the schedule for events — and will often find something compelling in the program.

Sarah Sigal, live performance programmer, speaks with enthusiasm about the music, comedy and dance that JW3 offers. She is particularly excited about dance, saying that the center “wants to be the home of Israeli dancers as they pass through London.” She explains that about a third of the events feature Jewish performers, a third are linked to Jewish interests and the rest are not specifically Jewish.

Talks, lectures, panel discussions and debates have pulled in big names. Britain’s best-known soccer player, David Beckham, has spoken at JW3, as have actor Kevin Spacey, economist Lawrence H. Summers, Chef Yotam Ottolenghi (“Jerusalem: A Cookbook”) and self-styled “Domestic Goddess” Nigella Lawson. The cinema is always active, making Jewish and Israeli cinema available in London as never before.

The restaurant wasn’t meant to be there — JW3 was supposed to have a gym and pool, like many American JCCs. But just as the plan to build the center was coming to fruition, the economic crisis hit, and many potential donors saw investments swallowed up by the Madoff scandal. Planners had to scrap the idea of the health suite. They decided instead to establish a restaurant, which would take the social function that the health suite would otherwise perform, albeit as calories are ingested instead of burned up.

It has worked out well. With modern Israeli and Eastern flavors, Zest is now one of the trendiest kosher restaurants in London. “Reader, I almost plotzed,” enthused a reviewer from that bastion of high standards The (London) Times after tasting one of the restaurant’s rugelach. “This was three dense rectangles of starchy heaven.”

The reviewer, Giles Coren, had seen JW3 spring up, but “hadn’t dared go in, in case I wasn’t Jewish enough, or was the wrong sort of Jew or something.” Enjoying exactly the experience that JW3’s board hoped would become commonplace, he stepped in for the food and discovered what the center has to offer. He wrote, “It turns out there is no wrong kind of Jew at JW3. They love us all: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Sephardic, Ashkenazi, Babylonian, and even, get this, even if you’re not Jewish at all!”

Simonson cites the restaurant as one way in which JW3 has taken the American JCC model and given its own twist — noting that he hasn’t come across an American Jewish center with such a successful restaurant and bar. That said, he’s grateful to American JCCs for providing the inspiration and impetus, even recalling the precise moment when JW3’s main donor, Dame Vivien Duffield, was in New York and the seeds were sown for the center.

“We’re open about the fact that this was inspired by JCC Manhattan and the 92nd Street Y,” says Simonson. “Dame Vivien was at the JCC and they said, ‘How many of these do you have in London?’ She replied, ‘none,’ and they couldn’t believe her. She came back and started thinking about it.” 

The center’s website is www.jw3.org.uk.