New York Jewish Travel Guide sat down with Rabbi Yehezkel Edery, Chief Rabbi of Japan and Chabad of Tokyo to ask a few questions about Jewish Life and Communities in Japan.
NYJTG: Can you tell us about yourself? How did you decide to come to Japan and how long have you been here?
Rabbi Edery: I was born in 1977 in Kfar Chabad, Israel. I studied in Yeshiva in Israel and in New York. During my studies in New York, I was offered the opportunity to volunteer at the Chabad House in Delhi. While there, many travelers mentioned that they were on their way to Japan and were dismayed that there was no Chabad House there. I understood that there was a need for a Bet Chabad in Japan. In 1999 when I met my wife the first words I said were, “Do you want to come with me to open a Chabad House in Japan?” Until then there was no permanent presence of Chabad in Japan. Yeshiva students would sometimes come for a Pesach Seder, but that was all. When my wife and I came, we immediately started to be active. We brought three suitcases, went around in the street and to homes to visit Jewish people and make Latke/Sufganiyot parties. Then came Purim and Pesach. We miraculously found a large house and never stopped until today, 18 years later. We arrived in Japan December 1999 Erev Chanukah, and now started our 19th year, Baruch Hashem.
NYJTG: Can you describe the Jewish life and the community in Tokyo? Who makes up this community? Israelis, Americans and French?
Rabbi Edery: When we came to Japan there was nothing kosher that we could get. No kosher bakery, meat or chicken, milk, Jewish school, little or no Jewish infrastructure. I looked for “Shechting” houses that were willing for us to do kosher shechita. I also looked for bakeries that would work with us for kosher bread. I taught Jewish children every day. Now Baruch Hashem we do kosher shechita, free range kosher chickens, provide kosher catering for guests, tourists and business people who visit Japan. We also opened in August 2016 another Chabad House in Kyoto, which is amazingly successful. The community consists of Israelis, Americans and European Jews who are married to local people and have children and live here in Japan. Others are expats, some are English teachers, exchange students here for a semester or a year. Some come to study martial arts or anime. It is a very transient community. The people who come to visit are here as tourists, for conferences, and for business.
NYJTG: How is the Jewish population in Japan and where is the largest concentration? Also, how many members are in your congregation and how would you describe the Chabad House of Tokyo?
Rabbi Edery: I think there are about 3,000 Jews living in Japan, most of them in Tokyo. (There are many who come to visit and for work, but don’t live here). We have a few hundred members. We provide a home away from home for all of the local and visiting Jews, kosher food, Shabbat and holidays, consultation, help and relief in time of need. We also provide meaning and learning for Japanese people who are interested in enriching their lives morally and spiritually. Many Japanese have partaken in classes and events, programs and seminars who have seen their lives change for the better. I have also officiated some of the weddings that have taken place here.
Our motto is – Illuminating Japan with goodness and kindness! To do acts of kindness, Torah, and mitzvot to all people. This prepares Japan for the coming of Moshiach now. Once a journalist asked the Rebbe, Shlita, what should we tell the world to do to bring Moshiach now (I think it was CNN). He answered, “add in acts of goodness and kindness.” So this is what we wake up with, is with us throughout the day, and we go to sleep with this thought as well.
NYJTG: I understand that to keep a decent kosher diet in Japan is not so easy. How difficult is it to obtain permits to bring kosher food or organic material to the island? Is it like forcing some observant Jews into a vegetarian lifestyle?
Rabbi Edery: For the beginner it is hard, but then you get used to it. People buy challah and wine and Israeli products from us, kosher chicken. But if you want to be strictly kosher, you need to make time to do the cooking yourself. The Japanese grains and vegetables and fish are of excellent quality, so you can have plenty of variety and delicious kosher food. It is not hard, it is just a decision/resolution that you have to make. And it is worth it.
NYJTG: Can you describe the Succoth holidays? Is it almost impossible to get the three of the four species needed for the ritual during this weeklong festival, such as the Etrog, the Lulav, and Frond from a date palm tree? How do you manage this, and how is the Simchat Torah celebrated?
Rabbi Edery: My policy is to be Jewishly self sufficient, meaning not to rely so much on importing from abroad, but to make [local products] kosher. The goal is twofold:
1) It is easier, more practical, more fresh, and better for you
2) To use Japan for Kedusha (increasing holiness).
So I am actually growing many hadassim and aravot and even a lulav tree and am now growing an Etrog tree, but it is still very small. So for now, we have people coming in and bringing us lulavim and etrogim.
NYJTG: What about Passover, how many people attend the Passover “Seder”? Is the service in Hebrew and English? How can visitors reserve their seats for Passover?
Rabbi Edery: On the Passover holiday, we have a huge amount of guests. In Tokyo we have well over 300 guests. In Kyoto, we have over 350 guests. This year will be the first time ever, we will have a Seder in Takayama as well. Every Jewish person, regardless of their level of observance, sees it as a first priority to celebrate the Pesach seder properly with Matzot and wine. That is the reason that so many people make a point to participate. Not all of them live in Japan and some are tourists. It is also the season of cherry blossoms, so that makes this time of the year all the more popular with guests from abroad. We also have many groups coming in before Pesach to experience the spring in Japan. Throughout the whole year, we are very busy with our activities, but Pesach, as in all Jewish centers and homes, is the busiest. To reserve a seat for Passover, you can email us:
For Tokyo, firstname.lastname@example.org
For Kyoto, email@example.com
For Pesach, we bring a huge container with wine and grape juice for the whole year, Matzot and kosher Le Pesach products.
NYJTG: How is the local attitude toward the Chabad and to the Jewish communities in Japan? Are some people interested to come to you to explore Judaism and potential conversion? And what are some of the aspects of Jewish culture difficult to maintain in Japan (i.e., language, discrimination…)?
Rabbi Edery: There isn’t anti-Semitism in Japan. At the same time there is a lot of ignorance about Jews and Judaism. The average Japanese knows very little about Jews and Judaism. Some who have heard about “Yudaya’’ have an image that Jews are rich and smart. There is a small minority that have been to Israel or the U.S. or specifically to study about Jews and Judaism. They are extremely interested in studying Torah and the Jewish way of life. It is actually amazing to see their thirst to understand the way of G-d. Of those who are interested in conversion, each is for a different reason. Some it is more because historically, it is the source of all religions, some feel some spiritual connection and strongly believe in G-d and the trueness of the Torah. Some appreciate the Jewish people for their morals and values and contribution to society. They love Einstein! Some appreciate the strength of faith and survival of our people despite persecution throughout the ages. Interestingly, they all read the Diary of Anne Frank in junior high school.
Many Japanese do believe that they stem from the 10 tribes who were exiled before the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem. There are studies that show many connections between Japanese and Jews. It doesn’t mean they are Jewish but it does mean that there is a connection going many years back. Living in Japan as a Jew can be very difficult to keep your identity as a Jew if you send your children to a Japanese school. The reason is because Japan is a very conformist society; you have to be the same as everyone. Being different and standing up for your beliefs is very contrary to Japanese behavior; that might be one of the reasons for the very high suicide rate in Japan. You have to be like everyone else even if it requires that you put yourself in a place, mentally, where you are not. So for Jewish people who come to Japan, some I know homeschooled their children, like ours. We make events for children for all Jewish holidays and make it fun to be Jewish, like a yearly Chanukah Cruise and an annual Shabbaton near Mount Fuji. Strengthening the Jewish identity in the next generation is of primal importance in our work in Japan.
NYJTG: Can you explain to our audience how were you appointed as Chief Rabbi of Japan and what does a Chief Rabbi Do? Can you also give us some highlights of your humanitarian programs you provide anonymously, such as delivering food parcels to needy people, hospitals and also opening a soup kitchen for the needy, especially during the Great Earthquake and Tsunami in the northeast of Japan in 2013?
Rabbi Edery: This is the link with the background to as to my appointment as Chief Rabbi of Japan.
Practically, we are doing the same activities as before helping every person in every way, no matter who he/she is. Whether it is to raise money to bury someone, or send someone home, or for Tefillin and mezuzot. Of course we send official letters to the government and we have received recognition by the Japanese government. The title enables us to help more people and that is what’s most important.
The Tsunami happened on Friday, March 11, 2011. I packed a van the next day, right after Shabbat and distributed plenty of relief. I helped the Japanese people extensively and in an unprecendented way. I brought sweet potato trucks (like ice cream trucks) that bake the yakimo (sweet potatoes) in coal ovens And distributed 10 tons of this hot and nutritious food that is good for everyone even babies and elderly people as well. I also distributed thousands of pairs of shoes/ sport shoes as people escaped their homes with slippers on their feet (in Japan we remove our shoes). Additionally, I organized collection spots of clothes food and other relief at a large supermarket located near the US and other embassies. Every week, I drove 2 ton trucks full of relief. I used friend’s parents house to as the base to sort out the huge amounts of useful clothes that were then picked up and distributed by the city offices. In the first days, myself along with our Chabad volunteers collected large amounts of gasoline in ‘’jerikans’’ and brought to the north. This was because the gas trucks had no access, all the roads were broken to the north and helpers couldn’t drive their cars to help the older people stuck in their homes. I also coordinated events with musicians and got all the sake companies that have hechsher donate sake for these people for free. I made BBQ and gave out slush in the summer and popcorn in the winter for the kids. All this to uplift their morale and make them happy. I also was able to get many Japanese food and clothing companies to donate for them. In light of this, the Japanese government gave us a certificate of appreciation and we received permanent residency for the whole family. That is a very great miracle indeed.
My wife, Efrat, and I have become well known for these acts of kindness, to every person regardless of creed or color. Actually, the U.S. embassy uses our services whenever they have a person who needs a home, a meal, some money, a good word of advice, prison visits.
Actually, most of the work we do with helping people is not publicized in our newsletter or any media by any means out of respect for the people involved. But that is actually most of what we do. Just recently a tourist group came to Japan from Israel. On the first day of their travel one man had a severe heart attack. It was very scary for his wife to be in a foreign country without understanding the language and to see her husband undergo open heart surgery and not knowing whether he would survive. His family and I visited the hospital and provided emotional support for his wife during this crucial time, food packages, and any necessary help during the few weeks of recuperation in Japan.
Some Jewish people who were very well to do during the bubble economy of Japan now are not in a good position financially, and have fallen to bankruptcy. With the many people I know, I connected them to new people providing them with work, enabling them to keep their dignity while building themselves financially again. (newyorkjewishtravelguide.com)
By: Meyer Harroch
(To be Continued Next Week)