New York Jewish Travel Guide sat down with Rabbi Mendi Sudakevich, head of Chabad Lubavitch of Japan, Tokyo, to ask a few questions about Jewish life and Communities in Japan. The following interview was edited for clarity:
NYJTG: Rabbi, many thanks for your time. Can you tell us about yourself? How did you decide to come to Japan and how long have you been here?
Rabbi Sudakevich: My name is Mendi Sudakevich. I am originally from Israel. When I did my rabbinical study in New York, there were lots of Israelis working in Japan those days and I’m talking about 1997. One of them contacted Chabad in New York saying that many Israelis are working in Japan and that they don’t have a place to make the Passover Seder. So, Chabad sent two boys from Australia to conduct the seder in Japan. They thought that when they called them that there are… probably 20 to 30 people, but when they came here they realized there were a few hundred and they only brought enough matzah for 20, 30 people. They called me at the Chabad office in New York at 6 o’clock in the morning. They woke me up and at that time there was no cell phone. They asked me if I am willing to go to Japan to help them with the Passover Seder. I said to them that I just woke up, but it sounds nice and why not! I knew they had planned it two weeks before Pesach. I went to the synagogue to pray as it was 9 o’clock and as I was praying for someone came to me and said, here is your ticket for Tokyo for the 5 p.m. flight…. I agreed to this as I had already a ticket and I had 15 extra pieces of luggage to take with me, with food, matzah, chicken, and wine. You name it and I had it there.
I came to Japan for the first time for the Passover Seder. We had an amazing Seder with over 500 people. There were many miracles. The next day after the Seder there was no minyan and we were wondering how it is possible that last night we had 500 people, and today nobody. I started to look around to see where the Jewish people are living in Japan. One person told me that his son will have a bar mitzvah soon. When I came back to New York, I got on the phone and started teaching Bar Mitzvah lessons to the boy. I then came back to Japan and that’s how I started to be involved with Jewish life here. Then three years later, when I got married, Chabad called me and told me maybe we will open Chabad here. That’s how we started and Chabad in Japan opened in 2000. I refer to the five people I mentioned earlier whom we had for Passover Seder because in those days many Israelis after the army would come to Japan for three months.
NYJTG: In the beginning, was it difficult to adjust?
Rabbi Sudakevich: It’s still difficult to adjust. I think if you live in Japan, you have to like Japan and you have to appreciate Japan because if you don’t it is very difficult to live here as they do things differently than we are used to in the West. They behave differently, they think differently and they do everything differently. Every time we encounter this challenge – but, on the other hand, everything is very organized and very planned. If you agree with someone on something, you know that’s how it’s going to be exactly like you agreed with him. It will be difficult until you can agree. But once you pass that stage then you know that [the Japanese] they are going to do it better than anyone else. I met once a CEO from a big Israeli company, one of the biggest Israeli companies, and he told me they have an office in Japan that loses money every year. So I told him so why do you keep the office? He replied that the best feedback on their machines comes from the Japanese office. If a Japanese customer buys it and says it is good then we know it’s good. If he says they have problems, he will tell me exactly what the problems are like nobody else. To sell to the Japanese is the best R&D investment in the world. It is instant feedback and the Japanese evaluation is a real and authentic one.
NYJTG: Can you describe the Jewish life and the community in Tokyo? Who makes up this community: Israelis, Americans, and French?
Rabbi Sudakevich: So, the community in Japan is a transient community. Nobody is here forever. If you are not Japanese usually you know you are going to leave one day. It is a very transient community. Most people come here because they have a job or they like Japanese culture and they want to study Japanese or they want to get to know and explore Japan a bit more. But most of them are going to leave after three to five years, as that’s usually the length of people staying in Japan. Then you have the other group that stays for 20 and 30 years, and then they leave to go back to usually where they came from. I would say probably that what we see now in our community is that we have about 30 percent Israelis, maybe another 40 percent Americans, and the rest from all over the world including France and Australia– really from all over. We have a regular community for minyan but it’s difficult to describe a regular community because this summer, for example, we had two families that are left. Every summer we have people come and go. We don’t know the new people yet but they are going to come here and we will meet them, but that’s our life. Thank God, every Shabbat we have a minyan now. For years we didn’t have a minyan but we now have enough people living here that even if we don’t have any visitors, we can have a minyan. I don’t think it’s ever happened that we don’t have a visitor. Some weeks we have only 10 visitors. Like this week it was quiet. Other weeks we have hundreds of visitors. As I mentioned earlier, there are many Israeli companies here – I would say about 30 companies with an office in Japan.
NYJTG: What is the Jewish population in Japan and where is the largest concentration?
Rabbi Sudakevich: Like all the foreigners, the largest number is in Tokyo. Kyoto has more tourists than in Tokyo. I think Kyoto tourists tend to stay longer in Kyoto than in Tokyo. I read an article that said that most tourists stay only two nights in Tokyo and three nights in Kyoto. I think they use Kyoto like a start, as a hub, and then they go from Kyoto to Hiroshima and come back. They go from Kyoto to Nara and then from Kyoto to Osaka, and then from Kyoto to many different places and come back.
My guess’s about 1,500. Let me tell you why — the Japanese are very organized people. They have a list of every foreigner (not by name) who lives in Japan. From that list, I can see how many Israelis living in Japan and how many Americans living in Japan. I can see their age and type of visa they have and other information. By the end of 2017, there were 521 Israelis living in Japan who were over 18 years old. There are 521 Israeli citizens. I know about 1/3 of the people that I know are Israelis … so I guess if that number is 500, then that makes it 1,500 total here. For the majority, most of them are in Tokyo. I would say about 2/3 are in Kyoto and Kobe. Kyoto does have a very big international population. There are lots of tourists but not so many foreigners living in Kyoto, mostly in Kobe, Osaka, Tokyo, Yokohama areas.
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 Sudakevich: Like everything in Japan, it’s not easy. Japan is an island and they like to keep the island mentality. They like to keep their island culture and it’s not easy to import food to Japan. We do import already chicken and meats to Japan for many years. We do also schechita [kosher ritual slaughter] now in Japan for chicken and a few cows, but it is mainly of chicken. We have a lot of struggle with the import process because every time there is a small problem in the U.S. with something, they ban the import and it can be that our shipment is already on the way. We had a problem last year and this year we imported about nine tons of chicken. We had five tons of chicken in a few shipments at the U.S. port and someone forgot to stamp the documents. So when it’s in the port with this problem, there is nothing I can do as the stamp was missing. It took us two months to find the solution to let it come in. It [involved] a $500 storage fee for two months in a special freezer at the port.
We have a Shohet with the Rabbi in Kyoto and we are doing schechita. Last week we went to a few cheese companies and soon we will have kosher cheese and milk that is Chalov Israel–made in Japan. We have a Chabad in Takayama located in the Japanese Alps in Gifu. We have very strong relationships in the city there and they came here and they asked me to open Chabad in Takayama and they helped us with the opening of Chabad. There are a lot of Jewish travelers going to Takayama because of Chiune Sugihara. It became a big destination for Jewish travelers. In one of the meetings I had with the City, they asked me what else do you want to improve for the Jewish travelers in Japan. I told them that we need kosher cheese and milk and they reached out to all the cheese companies in Takayama. In my meeting in Takayama with these companies, we explained that we needed kosher cheese and two companies stood up and said they wanted to do it. We now have a Chabad Rabbi in Takayama.
NYJTG: So now visitors can eat kosher in Gifu at the Chabad House?
Rabbi Sudakevich: Yes, they can eat there and have a Shabbat dinner, and also pray at the synagogue in Takayama. They have several kosher sakes in Takayama, and we have now more than 30 kosher sake companies in the country. I’ll tell you a secret— natural sake in its original state is kosher. The mixture of rice and water is sake so naturally, sake itself is a kosher product. What makes it not kosher is when they start mixing other things with it. If you go to a company and they do it the traditional way, real sake in its natural state, then the sake is kosher and they just need to get someone to check, confirm, and get the stamp. So you can see that it’s not difficult to make kosher sake. Sake is done for hundreds and hundreds of years the same way. If you do it the same way that it used to be done hundreds of years ago, then it’s not a problem.
NYJTG: Can you describe the Sukkot 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 Simchat Torah celebrated?
Rabbi Sudakevich: It’s a very good question that you are asking. It’s very difficult to import as we need lots of documents and licenses. This has been the issue since we came to Japan and it was so difficult. So, we decided to plant it ourselves here to make it easier for us: Lulav, Etrog, Hadass, and Aravah. We still import from Israel but if we cannot succeed with the import, at least we know that we have an alternative here. The number of tourists is growing here a lot and because of this growth, we need more every year. If we used to bring only 10 this year, we need about 60 more sets of Lulav and Etrog. Chabad has also the Sukkot mobile and we go around with our truck. This year, we going to have eight trucks to go to all the tourist destinations in Japan. We have two boys that travel with the trucks to Kobe, Kyoto, and Takayama and to other Jewish destinations. Last year we did this and every day we had approximately 200 visits to the trucks. I don’t know if you are aware but Japan is becoming big in the cruise ship destination with the port of Yokohama. It is a great feeling to see a line of 20 people standing inline into the Sukkot mobile to make the prayers on the Lulav and Etrog. It was an amazing feeling to see this! We go on the streets on Simchat Torah and we dance like every other community in Japan. They have a celebration and also they dance on the street for their festivals – we also do it like everybody else. We don’t need a permit. We need a permit on Yom Kippur because we get lots of people here. We have about 200 people coming and as you can see this place cannot fit 200 people, so we obtain a permit and the police close down the street to accommodate everyone.
NYJTG: What about Passover, how many people attend your Passover Seders and is it conducted in Hebrew, in English?
Rabbi Sudakevich: Very good question. Because of the nature of our community in that we have the locals, and also travelers, and the Israeli traveler, so we do three Sedarim for Passover. We do one Seder for the locals who are the people that live here. We do it in a very nice venue with a chef that cooks the food. It is indeed a very nice Passover Seder in English and about 300 people come to this Seder. Then we do another Seder which is done mostly for the tourists. It is also done in a nice venue and we get about 100 people. The third Seder is done for the young Israelis, which is free and everybody is welcome to come. There are about 150 people at this Seder. We do two Seder nights but for the first Seder night, we do three [separate] locations because renting a nice hall is very, very expensive in Japan. So if we put everybody in one room, we would need a big sponsor and that it’s not easy to find one.
NYJTG: What it’s like for your children in terms of Hebrew school and do you have a nursery school program?
Rabbi Sudakevich: Let me answer you. Every time we have different people here because of the nature of the community. Some years we do have a kindergarten, some years we don’t. Right now we don’t have one. Last time we had one was about five years ago. When we see that there are enough kids to start a kindergarten program, then we start one. Right now we don’t have one. We do have a Sunday school program with over 30 kids. We have teachers coming from Israel and France to teach in the Hebrew school for the last three years. For my kids, I would say that’s the most difficult part for shaliah (emissaries). This is because my kids see life in Israel or in New York where everybody has lots of kosher foods, lots of friends, everything they want. Here, they have to be in the house and study online on the computer. They have very few friends who are mainly those who come to Sunday school but they don’t see them very often. Their school is online. Saba and Safta are in Israel. All the uncles and cousins and everybody are abroad. I would say that is probably the most difficult part. At the same time, I think they learn a lot being here and [the experience] also gives them a lot – so it’s a mixed feeling.
NYJTG: Are there events such as Challah bakes?
Rabbi Sudakevich: My wife bakes challahs every Thursday and gives a challah class, Challah and Tea, with a few ladies that come here to make the Challah for Shabbat.
NYJTG: How is the local attitude toward the Chabad and the Jewish community in Japan? Are some people interested to come and explore Judaism or potential conversion?
Rabbi Sudakevich: I don’t deal a lot with the Japanese. My work is not so much toward the Japanese. It is for the Jewish community here. Many times I have questions by the Japanese. I have meetings with the Japanese because they have an interest and want to know more about Judaism and things like that. We don’t have a beth din here, so it’s very difficult to convert. We did have some converts throughout the years. At the moment, I think nobody is staying in Japan. Everybody is leaving because once they convert, they want to keep a kosher house, send their kids to Jewish schools. It’s very difficult. We just had a family and the woman was a convert and they made aliyah last week to Israel.
NYJTG: My last question– what are some of the aspects of the Jewish culture difficult to maintain here in Japan and what would be an example?
Rabbi Sudakevich: The most difficult thing is that we don’t have Jewish life like a normal place. We don’t have normal services. We don’t have normal Jewish events and no Jewish weddings here. Nobody wants to get married in Japan. They go to get married in Israel, in America, or in France, where they have a family even if they live in Japan. We have maybe four, five bar mitzvahs per year in this synagogue. Most of the bar mitzvahs go abroad. Brit milah we have here because we have a mohel that lives here. He’s in Israel now and he lives most of his time in Tokyo. We do have Chevra Kadisha here. That’s the only thing, that we sit shiva and the people go to their family.
Most of the time, what we have to do is to send the body overseas. This happens to us a few times a year. Maybe once a year, we bury also in Japan as we have a Jewish cemetery here. In the Yokohama cemetery, there is still space but not so much space left. Kobe has two Jewish cemeteries. There is a small cemetery in Osaka and it has not been used for more than 60 years.
NYJTG: Thank you, Rabbi, for your time and all the information you shared with us. I really appreciate it, as will our readers.
Story By Meyer Harroch – New York Jewish Travel Guide & New York Jewish Guide
The author took part in a press trip sponsored by the prefectures of Fukushima, Tochigi, and Ibaraki and the Japan Travel Bureau (JTB).