Kobe, Japan - Jewish Community Print

In the Kansai region of the island of Honshu, Japan, sits the port city of Kobe. The cosmopolitan city has a population of 45,000 foreign residents from more than 100 countries and is home to the Ohel Shelomo Synagogue, officially the Jewish Community of Kansai – the oldest surviving Jewish community in Japan.

The first Jews arrived in Kobe around the turn of the 20th century. Up until WWII, Jews flocked to the port city from Poland, Russia, Germany and the Middle East due to its wealth and trading opportunities. As was often the case in Jewish history, Jews were predominantly involved in mercantile businesses because of limitations imposed upon then by their home countries, and working in trade allowed them to prosper without settling down.

By 1941, there were two separate synagogues in Kobe, one for the Ashkenazim and another for the Sephardim. During WWII, the Sephardic synagogue burnt down as the result of a US air raid, and the Ashkenazim shared their space with the Sephardic community.

According to George Sidline, a former resident of Kobe who now lives in Portland, Oregon, the Germans went to great lengths to infiltrate Japan with anti-Semitic propaganda, yet to their annoyance, Japan was largely tolerant of Jews. He is currently writing a book about his experiences growing up in Japan during the war. There have been numerous other publications on the subject.

Ironically, in the 1930s, the Japanese government, espoused by the fraudulent anti-Semitic text “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” which claimed that Jews had an intrinsic and almost supernatural ability to accumulate money and power, sought out a Jewish population to come to Japan. The government believed that encouraging Jews to settle in their country would be politically and economically advantageous.

Between 1939 and 1940, despite being an ally of Nazi Germany, Japan continued to accept a large influx of Jews from Europe. In a well-known act of bravery and kindness, Japan’s consul to Lithuania, Chiune Sugihara, ignored orders from Japan’s Foreign Ministry and gave thousands of Jews transit visas to Japan. Many of whom found refuge in Kobe, and he saved as many as 10,000 Jewish lives.

The Jews in Kobe meanwhile found themselves unable to travel or conduct business during the war, but were treated well by local authorities. It is reported that Rahmo Sassoon, in order to ease the growing anxiety among the Jewish residents, was pressured into painting over the gold-lettered sign that adorned the synagogue so that it would be less conspicuous.

Despite the presence of German officers in Kobe, the Chief of Police of Kobe assured Sassoon of the community’s safety and he was ordered to restore the lettering.

The largest single group to benefit from Sugihara’s effort was the Lithuanian Mirrer Yeshiva, the only European institute of Talmudic learning that survived the Holocaust. The yeshiva also had the good fortune to be associated with a member of the extended Japanese imperial family who was enamoured with Judaism.

Setzuso Kotsuji befriended the yeshiva’s rabbis and petitioned Japan’s Foreign Affairs minister to extend their twoweek visas to eight months. In 1941, the yeshiva then relocated from Kobe to Shanghai, where it remained until the end of the war. The yeshiva now resides in Jerusalem and in Brooklyn.

After the war, most of the Jewish refugees had left Japan for other countries, and what remained of Kobe was the Sephardic community, which officially established itself as the Jewish Community of Kansai. It acquired a building from Rahmo Sassoon, a Syrian-born resident of Kobe, naming it Ohel Shelomo after his father. The plot of land and building were originally purchased for use as a furniture warehouse but were converted into a synagogue.

The present community centre was built in 1970, under the direction of Albert Hamway and Vicot Moche, who came from Syria and Iran respectively, after the community raised funds and purchased the land from Rahmo Sassoon. The land was sold far below market value so that Rahmo Sassoon could further contribute to the community.

For many years foreign business prospered and the Jewish community grew rapidly in size. Large Israeli companies created headquarters in the area, brining with them an influx of young families. Traders and other businessmen flocked to this commercial centre on a regular basis and the shipping industry flourished. The Israeli presence was high. Unfortunately, a depreciation of the yen led many of these businesses to pull out in the 1980s.

The current synagogue is located in Kitano-cho, not far from the centre of commercial activity. The centre exists to this day with donations from local residents, businessmen and travelers from around the world.

Unfortunately, the Great Hanshin earthquake of 1995 caused serious damage to the building, which has since been repaired but still needs additional restoration work. Many members of the community watched as their homes and possessions were destroyed.

The nearby Jewish cemetery, a true testimony to the history of this community, also suffered severe damage, including cracked and overturned tombstones. As the cost of repairs is high and the community is much smaller than it had been, the struggle to return the centre to its original grandeur appears to be ongoing.

Numerous international organisations and private donors responded to the community’s needs in the aftermath.

Although the Jewish community’s population has clearly declined quite drastically from its WWII population and its peak for the Israeli shipping industry, Kobe continues to be an active and vibrant community.

Today the synagogue serves as the Jewish centre for over 20 families and attracts Jews from neighbouring cities as well as tourists from around the world.

On any given Shabbat there is representation from the four corners of the globe and all spectrums of Jewish background and practice. As Kobe is known as a leading centre for pearl trade, naturally many of the participants are drawn there by the nature of their industry. Others trade in rugs and other luxury items.

The community also attracts English teachers as well as students from Israel and the US. Israeli backpackers making their way through Asia also find refuge in this community.

The synagogue is Orthodox and Sephardic, but those who frequent it come from diverse Jewish backgrounds. The synagogue remains Orthodox but manages to incorporate this diverse groups’ uniqueness into daily life and encourages participation from all members of the community. Additionally, it is not uncommon for visitors to participate in the warm and welcoming Shabbat activities.

All participants are invited weekly to enjoy a sit down Kiddush following Shabbat services. A recent Passover Seder included two visiting rabbis from New York as well as nearly 180 participants. Haggadot in Japanese were made available.

Rabbi Tobi, sent by Chabad in Israel, serves as the synagogue’s permanent rabbi. He grew up in Jerusalem and was likewise educated and ordained there as well. Rebbetzin, Merav Tobi, received training as an elementary school teacher. It is clear that together Rabbi Asaf and Rebbetzin Merav place a great emphasis on education.

The community boasts a kindergarten programme in response to demand. Their Gan Yeladim programme is offered daily from Sunday through Thursday and incorporates Hebrew language lessons, weekly parsha introduction, and learning about the holidays and prayer. Their aim is to help the children internalise Jewish values.

Additionally, education is offered for women so that they can be better prepared to keep a home in accordance to Jewish law. Other adult education opportunities are also available to further the Rabbi and Rebbetzin’s self-proclaimed missions, to provide education to the community.

Kosher food is available and the kosher market makes a wide range of products available to residents and travellers. Additionally, the community has a Mikveh. All women are welcomed and encouraged to make use of the Mikveh and learn about this important ritual. The community offers detailed explanations of the spiritual, psychological and physical benefits of Mikveh, to those that may not familiar with the laws, in order to further the aim of education.

The Jewish Community of Kansai is proud of its strong and unique history. They together have survived WWII and a devastating earthquake.

The ties former residents have to the community remains strong. The community’s history has been well documented and recorded. Relatives of those who sought refuge there hold the community in a special place in their hearts.

A Japanese flag and an Israeli flag wave from the synagogue’s bimah. The Jewish Community of Kansai has stood the test of time and although small, continues to grow and thrive.

Historical portion adapted, with permission of author, Lisa Sopher. Article appeared, in part, in Blueprint, July/ August 2006 edition.

Jewish Times Asia October 2006
(and edited July 2017)

Kobe Jewish Cemetary

The cemetery still preserves the memory of people who lived through the war. The cemetery is a true historical site.

It is within an international graveyard, situated on the back of the hill behind the synagogue. The Jewish cemetery is staggered in two areas, with the older section being lower on the hill than the newer. Inside, there are tombstones of people who came to Kobe from places from Amsterdam to Russia, from Syria to the US, dating back to the turn of the century.

All pictures and content supplied by haruth.com

Israel’s Minister of Science and Technology visits Japan

Israeli Minister of Science and Technology, Yaakov Peri, visited Japan to further increase economic and scientific cooperation between the two countries.

During his stay, Minister Peri attended the annual STS forum in Kyoto, and also met with MEXT (Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology) Minister Hakubun Shimomura.

Peri has also met with the Japan-Israel Parliamentary Friendship League, and visited the Jewish Community Centre and synagogue in Kobe.

While in Kobe, Peri visited the RIKEN Advanced Institute for Computational Science campus to see the K Computer, Japan’s fastest supercomputer and the most capable computer in the world. Based on a distributed memory architecture with over 80,000 computer nodes, it is being used in a broad range of research fields, including drug discovery, earthquake/tsunami research, weather forecasting, space science, manufacturing and materials development.

Jewish Times Asia, Dec. 2014/Jan. 2015

(and edited July 2017)

Fact Box

Ohel Shlomo Synagogue
4-12-12 Kitano-cho,
Chuo-ku, Kobe 650-0002, Japan

Tel: (81) 78 221 7236

Fax: (81) 78 242 7254

Jewish Community of Kansai
Jewish Community Centre 4-12-12 Kitano-cho, Chuo-ku, Kobe, Japan

Tel: (81) 78 221 7236

Fax: (81) 78 242 7254

email: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it


Rabbi Shmuel Visetsky is overseeing the Centre.

Email: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
The synagogue still operates and is equipped with a Mikvah.
The Jewish community centre has a few rooms available for guests during shabbat and holidays. There are also a number of reasonably priced hotels nearby.

(Issue Jul/Aug 2017)