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|Jewish Community of Japan in Tokyo|
Tokyo is a bustling, modern city with a proud heritage of juxtaposing old and new, sacred and business, public and private. A huge city set into a small country, Tokyo is at its heart dedicated to preserving the past while maintaining its commitment to being a player on the international scene.
Up until Admiral Perry arrived in Shimoda, south of Tokyo in the 1860s, Japan was closed to the west, making it a thoroughly homogeneous society. With the advent of globalism, Tokyo must open itself to change and foreign presence.
Though a few Jews lived in Japan prior to 1930, in the beginning of modern Jewish history in Japan, the Jews arrived mostly from China via Russia, where they were persecuted.
Due to the homogeneity of the Japanese people, all of the Jews in the country are imported, either via business interests or by marriage. Those first Jews settled mostly in Southern or Western Japan at first, populating the city of Kobe.
During WWII, the legendary Japanese emissary, Chiune Sugihara, Japanese counsul to Lithuania, made his historic decision to write transit visas for over 2000 Jews to go through the port city of Kobe to an unknown end point. Many Jews settled in Kobe rather than travel on.
Though there were a small number of Jews before that point, they mostly made their mark on the city after the war. Japan reportedly was kind to the Jews, about whom they knew and understood little.
The Jewish community of Tokyo, however, got its start from more pedestrian origins: military, business, industry and education. Jewish businessmen recognised the opportunities for trade and work within Asia as a whole and Japan specifically, so they moved their families to the island nation in hopes of success, both personal and professional. These were businessmen of many nationalities: Russian, German, American, Australian - all coming together to form a community.
Some of those initial foreign Jewish residents included the man who is credited with introducing horse racing into Japan. Many traders were Jewish and helped re-open trade with Japan after the war, restarting long-stalled markets and reviving shipping in and out of the island country.
Jewish professors came to Japan to continue their research and revive intellectual life in the war-torn country. Japan was quick to recognise the formation of the state of Israel in 1948 and established diplomatic ties with the newly formed country, including hosting a diplomatic corps of ambassadors, which further contributed to the community of Jews in Tokyo.
In the beginning, religion had little to do with it; the Jewish Community of Japan (JCJ) in Tokyo was more of a social club. Yiddish was the common language spoken and activities consisted mostly of card games, parties to celebrate certain holidays and even casino nights. The community acquired a building in the centrally located Hiroo section of Tokyo and was officially dedicated in April 1952.
There was a social hall, a library, a billiards room and even a pool. It wasnâ€™t until later, about 1968, that the synagogue along with a mikveh was added.
The first spiritual leader of the JCJ was Chaplain Major Herman Dicker, who came to Tokyo with his wife Eileen in the late 1950s. He and Hilda Naim, wife of Israeli ambassador Asher Naim, formed the first religious school in Tokyo in October 1956. They started with nearly 50 children between the ages of six and twelve, all of whom learned Hebrew and became familiar with the prayerbook, holiday worship and modern songs.
In time, the building accommodated a restaurant, and the Russian population of Tokyo flocked there for familiar tastes, Jewish or not! The community hosted diplomats and guests from across the globe. American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and Israeli General Moshe Dayan visited the JCJ as well as Japanese Prince Mikasa, who was very interested in Jewish affairs and attended the building dedication.
The JCJ was always involved in the spiritual life of American soldiers stationed in Japan. There have been joint seders, accommodation at the times of the High Holidays and cultural events to make foreigners feel at home in a foreign land.
All of the events held at the JCJ were designed to help Jews from across the globe feel like they were connected to each other and their religion while they lived in a place that of itself had little or no Jewish history.
Things that Jews need and on which they depend for their spiritual life, such as folkdancing opportunities or Jewish learning seminars happened because of the commitment of business leaders to creating an atmosphere in which Jewish life can thrive despite the culture outside of its walls.
The life of the Jewish community has gone through much iteration due to the diversity of the people who worship within the community. There have been controversies and debates, all of which contributes to the vibrancy of the community because as Jews everywhere know, the synagogue or Jewish community without diversity of opinion is not a community at all - cohesiveness counts, not collectivity.
The current President of the JCJ, Daniel Turk, comments that often the view of the community depends on the viewer. He explains that members with children view the religious school as the centre of the community.
More observant members view the opportunity to attend services to be the most important aspect of the community. Single people view social events to be important so they can meet other Jewish singles.
Dan, an American, is married to Yuki, a Japanese. Yuki was instrumental in forming the Japanese Jewish Women's Group, which consists mainly of Japanese women married to Jewish men.
Some of the women have converted to their husbands' religion, but all of them are interested in knowing more about the faith that is so important to their spouses. The JJW holds classes and other events to aid the women in their quest for knowledge.
Now the JCJ has about 120 member families, and a myriad of activities on a weekly basis, including a various adult education classes, Hebrew classes, and social and cultural activities.
There is a mikveh and a chevre kadisha to care for the varying needs of the community.
The religious school, run by Marsha Rosenberg, is home to seventy-one children from age three to thirteen. There is a b'nai mitzvah programme as well as monthly family Shabbat services and opportunities to participate in local Japanese tzedakah projects.
The congregation is currently between rabbis, having recently accepted the resignation of the current rabbi due to personal reasons. The religious committee is actively searching for his replacement, no small task given the diversity of the community. They hope to have many applicants so that the position can be filled soon.
The Jewish Community of Japan is currently undergoing an exciting transformation: a new building. The original building was constructed before 1950 and then torn down and rebuilt in 1976.
Starting in May 2008, the building was razed to the ground in preparation for the reconstruction so the congregation will exist in temporary quarters for slightly more than a year while the new building is constructed.
The funds for the new construction were obtained mainly through a large and anonymous donation, with the JCJ's own funds and donation from the congregants making up the shortfall. The new building will be light and airy, focused on the needs of the entire community.
It is scheduled to be finished by September 2009, and given the Japanese reputation for commitment and efficiency, next year the Jewish Community of Japan will worship in crisp new quarters designed to last the community well into the future.
It's an exciting time to be a member of the JCJ in Tokyo, an exciting and increasingly diverse city.
Tokyo Jewish Community Center (Temporary address)
Supplied by Aimee Weinstein, based in Tokyo, Japan
(Issue October 2008)