In March, a week after the Covid-19 lockdown began, Raymond Simonson returned to a silent JW3 and felt intensely uncomfortable. Here was a building designed to be at the heart of the community, and it stood empty and unused. Twenty-four hours later Simonson, as JW3’s CEO, had conceived a plan. ‘With a combination of clear purpose, a great bunch of volunteers, and an outstanding physical building I felt the sky was the limit.’
Rapidly he and his staff turned JW3 into a virtual community centre, posting 7 years’ worth of archive content online. Within a week they had moved its substantial adult education programme and gateway programme for young people at risk online. They began running online activities for families with small children, and held a virtual Black Lives Matter event for the Jewish community.
Since its inception JW3 has been the foremost UK venue to bring together Jews of different denominations, both religious and non-religious, and Jews and non-Jews. Now it also turned itself into a cross-communal publisher, setting up a newsletter for Jewish organisations to upload their virtual event details. This virtual TimeIn (at jewishonline.jw3.org.uk) has seen more than 20,000 users clicking through to another organisation’s event.
Most importantly, the Centre fast became a hugely practical community action point. It began a befriending service, phoning more than 100 people a week to ask if they needed anything. It offered its kitchen to a small charity that cooked for local people in need. It organised food collection points and a food drop from Camden Council, turned its youth centre into a food bank and its restaurant into a food depot. In May the Arsenal FC Foundation generously donated 4.5 tonnes of food (15,000 meals) and has been joined by the Trussell Trust. Since lockdown, JW3 has delivered more than 30,000 meals to, for example, hostels for abuse survivors and families suffering food poverty, and has now become Camden Council’s official food distribution point for the north of the borough.
LDS is proud to have designed a versatile and adaptable building that could contain all these initiatives, and even prouder of all the JW3 staff and volunteers who have given their imagination, time and effort unstintingly to help the community in these months of uncertainty. As lockdown lifts, JW3 is gradually returning to life as we knew it: its nursery reopened in July, and 5 weeks of summer camps are scheduled. ‘To have the laughter of children back has been great,’ Simonson says. But JW3’s spirit of community never left the building.
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Images – Blake Ezra Photography / JW3