The Chief Rabbi of Japan Addresses Jewish Communal Life in the Pacific Rim

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    The New York Jewish Travel Guide conducted an insightful interview with Rabbi Yehezkel Edery, who currently serves as the Chief Rabbi of Japan and oversees the Chabad of Tokyo. Throughout this engaging conversation, we explored various aspects of Jewish life and the Jewish community in Japan.

    NYJTG: Could you please share some insights about yourself? What brought you to Japan, and how long have you been residing here?

    Rabbi Edery: I was born in Israel. My educational journey led me through yeshivas in both Israel and New York. During my time in New York, I encountered an intriguing opportunity when I was offered a chance to volunteer at the Chabad House in Delhi. While there, I met numerous travelers who expressed their desire for a Chabad house in Japan. Recognizing this pressing need, I felt a deep calling to establish one. In 1999, during a life-changing moment when I met my future wife, my first words to her were, “Would you like to join me in opening a Chabad House in Japan?” At that time, Japan had no permanent Chabad presence. Occasional visits by Yeshiva students for Passover Seders were the extent of it. With unwavering determination, my wife and I embarked on this mission. Armed with just three suitcases, we ventured into the streets and homes to connect with Jewish individuals and host gatherings such as Latke and Sufganiyot parties. Soon after, we celebrated Purim and Passover. Miraculously, we secured a spacious house, and our efforts have not wavered since. Our journey to Japan began in December 1999, coinciding with the eve of Chanukah, and we are now entering our 19th year, by the grace of Hashem.

    NYJTG: Could you describe the Jewish community and Jewish life in Tokyo? Who makes up this community, including Israelis, Americans, and French nationals?

    Rabbi Edery: When we first arrived in Japan, the Jewish community faced a significant challenge as there were no kosher options available, including kosher bakeries, meat or poultry, dairy products, Jewish schools, and very limited Jewish infrastructure. We undertook the mission of establishing kosher Shechita (ritual slaughter) and collaborated with local bakeries to produce kosher bread. I personally taught Jewish children daily. Today, we are fortunate to be able to provide kosher Shechita, free-range kosher chickens, and kosher catering for tourists, business travelers, and visitors to Japan. In August 2016, we also successfully opened another Chabad House in Kyoto. Our community is a diverse mix of Israelis, Americans, and European Jews, many of whom have married locals, raised families, and made Japan their home. Others are expatriates or English teachers participating in exchange programs for a semester or a year. Some individuals come to Japan for various reasons, such as studying martial arts or exploring anime culture. It’s a dynamic and ever-changing community, with people visiting for tourism, conferences, and business purposes.

    NYJTG: What is the approximate size of the Jewish community in Japan, and where is the largest concentration of Jewish residents located? Additionally, could you provide insights into the membership of your congregation and offer an overview of the Chabad House of Tokyo?

    Rabbi Edery: I estimate that there are approximately 3,000 Jews in Japan, with the majority residing in Tokyo. Many others come to visit or work temporarily. Our congregation comprises several hundred members. At the Chabad House of Tokyo, our mission is to create a welcoming and comfortable environment for both local and visiting Jews. We offer essential services such as access to kosher food, Shabbat and holiday celebrations, consultations, assistance in times of need, and a source of spiritual guidance. Furthermore, we extend our outreach to Japanese individuals interested in enhancing their moral and spiritual well-being. Numerous Japanese participants have joined our classes, events, programs, and seminars, experiencing positive transformations in their lives. I’ve also had the privilege of officiating weddings for couples here in Japan.

    Seder with Chabad Kyoto: New York Jewish Travel Guide

    NYJTG: I’ve heard that maintaining a kosher diet in Japan can be quite challenging. How difficult is it to obtain permits for importing kosher food or organic materials into the country? Does this pose a challenge for observant Jews, potentially leading some to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle?

    Rabbi Edery: Indeed, maintaining a kosher diet in Japan can be challenging, especially when it comes to obtaining permits for importing kosher food or organic materials. Initially, it may seem daunting, but over time, individuals adapt to the circumstances. Many people in our community purchase kosher essentials such as challah, wine, Israeli products, and kosher chicken from us. However, for those who are committed to strict kosher observance, the option of cooking for themselves becomes essential. Fortunately, Japan offers excellent-quality grains, vegetables, and fish, which allows for a diverse and delicious kosher diet. It’s not inherently difficult but rather requires a conscious decision and commitment, which ultimately proves to be rewarding.

    NYJTG: Can you provide an overview of the Sukkot holidays in Japan? Is it a significant challenge to acquire three out of the four species required for the ritual during this week-long festival, such as the Etrog (citron), the Lulav (palm branch), and the Frond (myrtle and willow branches)? How do you address these challenges, and what is the celebration of Simchat Torah like?

    Rabbi Edery: In our approach, we emphasize self-sufficiency in matters of Jewish observance. This means relying less on imports and instead making use of locally available products while maintaining the highest standards of kashrut (kosher dietary laws).

    This approach serves two important purposes: Practicality, freshness, and healthiness of the products and sanctifying Japan by imbuing it with holiness through our observance.

    Currently, I am personally involved in cultivating numerous Hadassim (myrtle branches) and Aravot (willow branches). I even have a Lulav tree in my care. Although it’s still quite small, it represents our commitment to self-sufficiency. Additionally, I am nurturing an etrog tree, although it is in its early stages of growth. Consequently, during Sukkot, we do have individuals who bring us Lulavim and Etrogim, ensuring that our community can observe the festival with the necessary ritual objects. This approach aligns with our goal of gradually reducing reliance on imports while strengthening our connection to Japan and its resources.

    Rabbi Edery and guest: Succa Mobile Chabad House of Japan Tokyo: New York Jewish Travel Guide

    NYJTG: How about Passover? How many individuals typically attend the Passover Seder, and is the service conducted in Hebrew and English? How can visitors secure their seats for Passover?

    Rabbi Edery: Passover is a significant event for our community, and we host a substantial number of guests during this holiday. In Tokyo, we typically welcome well over 300 guests, and in Kyoto, we accommodate over 350 guests. This year, for the first time ever, we will also host a Seder in Takayama.

    For Jewish individuals, regardless of their level of observance, celebrating the Passover Seder with matzot and wine is a top priority, which is why so many people make it a point to participate. It’s worth noting that not all our guests live in Japan; some are tourists. Additionally, the cherry blossom season makes this time of year particularly popular among international visitors, and we often receive groups who come to experience springtime in Japan.

    Throughout the year, our center is bustling with activities, but Passover, like in other Jewish centers and homes around the world, is the busiest season for us. To secure a seat for Passover, visitors can contact us via email:

    For Passover, we make special arrangements to ensure a substantial supply of wine, grape juice, matzot, and kosher Le Pesach products to meet the needs of our community for the entire year.

    Seder with Chabad Japan:  New York Jewish Travel Guide

    NYJTG: How do the local communities in Japan generally view Chabad and the Jewish communities? Do you encounter individuals interested in learning more about Judaism or even contemplating conversion? Additionally, what aspects of Jewish culture face challenges in Japan, such as language barriers or the potential for discrimination?

    Rabbi Edery: The local attitude towards Chabad and the Jewish communities in Japan is generally positive, with no significant anti-Semitism but limited knowledge about Jews and Judaism among the local population. Some Japanese individuals express a deep interest in exploring Judaism, with various motivations, including historical significance, spirituality, admiration for Jewish values and resilience, and even a belief in ancestral connections. However, living as a Jew in Japan can be challenging due to societal conformity, which can pose difficulties, especially for Jewish families with children in Japanese schools. Some opt for homeschooling to maintain their distinct Jewish identity, supported by community events and activities to reinforce Jewish culture and heritage.

    NYJTG: Could you provide more details about your appointment as Chief Rabbi of Japan and the duties that come with this position? Furthermore, can you share some significant instances of your humanitarian work, especially those carried out discreetly, such as distributing food parcels to those in need, helping hospitals, and setting up a soup kitchen during the Great Earthquake and Tsunami in northeastern Japan in 2011?

    Rabbi Edery: Certainly! My appointment as Chief Rabbi of Japan was a result of recognition from both the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the Japanese government. In this role, I bear various responsibilities related to spiritual and communal leadership. You can find more details about my appointment here.

    As Chief Rabbi of Japan, my practical duties are aligned with our ongoing mission, which is to assist anyone in need, regardless of their background or beliefs. This encompasses activities such as fundraising for burials, facilitating the repatriation of individuals, providing religious items like tefillin and mezuzot, and offering various forms of support. Our primary objective is to help people in various ways, and the title of Chief Rabbi allows us to extend our reach and assist more individuals, furthering our commitment to this mission.

    Chabad Tokyo promotes Japanese artisans and their crafts in Kyoto: New York Jewish Travel Guide

    In terms of our discreet humanitarian efforts, especially during the Great Earthquake and Tsunami in 2011, we were deeply involved in relief work. Immediately following the disaster, I personally loaded a van with relief items and distributed them in affected areas right after Shabbat. Our relief efforts included distributing 10 tons of hot and nutritious Yakima (sweet potatoes) from specially equipped trucks, distributing thousands of pairs of shoes, setting up collection points for clothes and food near various embassies, and even transporting substantial quantities of gasoline in large containers (Jerikans) to areas where gas trucks couldn’t reach due to damaged roads. We also organized events with musicians, coordinated donations of sake from companies with kosher certification, and provided BBQ, slush, and popcorn to uplift the spirits of those affected.

    Our collaboration with the Japanese government during this critical period led to our family receiving permanent residency in Japan as a form of recognition for our humanitarian efforts, which was a significant blessing.

    Beyond these publicized efforts, much of our work involves discreetly helping people in various ways, and we do not publicize these acts out of respect for the individuals involved. For example, we recently provided support to an Israeli tourist whose husband had a severe heart attack in Japan, offering emotional support, food packages, and assistance during his recovery.

    We also assist individuals who were once financially well-off during Japan’s economic bubble but have fallen into financial difficulties. In such cases, we connect them with new opportunities and help them rebuild their financial stability while preserving their dignity. Our focus remains on acts of kindness and support for all people in need, regardless of their background or circumstances. 

    Displaying the certificate of the appointment of Rabbi Edery as Chief Rabbi of Japan are, from left: Shimba san, Rabbi Edery, Chief Secretary of Cabinet-Suga san, Dr. Teshima, and Muto san.

    NYJTG: I learned about your KJ-Kosher Japan certification for sake at the Funasaka Sake Brewery. Can you provide details about the KJ certification and the range of Japanese kosher products you offer for Jewish consumers worldwide? Where can these products be found in Japan?

    Rabbi Edery: Our goal is to make exceptional Japanese products kosher for Jewish consumers worldwide. We certify a variety of Japanese products, including sake, shochu, umeshu, miso, soy sauce, nori (seaweed), green tea, and soba (buckwheat noodles). These high-quality products can be found on our Kosher Japan website at www.kosherjapan.co.jp.

    NYJTG: During my visit to the Yokohama Foreign General Cemetery, I came across a Jewish section and noticed a tombstone for Armand Knafo. Could you tell us more about Armand Knafo?

    Rabbi Edery: Armand (Amram) Knafo was originally from Agadir, Morocco. He experienced the devastating earthquake there before immigrating to Israel, where he served in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and pursued studies in Germany. Later, he arrived in Japan and founded a highly successful language school in the 1970s, which continues to thrive today. When his health declined, we engaged in discussions with him and his family about the significance of a Jewish burial, as cremation is the prevalent practice in Japan.

    I conducted the Taharah, the ritual washing of the deceased, with the assistance of Mr. Mikey Steinbock, an individual with extensive experience from his decades-long service in the Chevra Kadisha (burial society) in London. This was a remarkable alignment of circumstances. Following his passing, we arranged for his burial in the Yokohama cemetery. His brothers and sister traveled from Israel to say Kaddish, making it a deeply moving experience.

    I maintain the practice of offering prayers at his grave and for other Jewish individuals in Japan, including at the older cemetery in Nagasaki, which receives few visitors to pay their respects.

    NYJTG: Rabbi, we appreciate your time and insights. Thank you for sharing this valuable information with us, and our readers will surely find it meaningful.

     

    For more information, visit:

    To plan a visit to Japan, contact Chabad of Tokyo or log on to:

     http://www.chabadjapan.org/contact/

    For Tokyo, email chabadtokyo@gmail.com.

    For Kyoto, email chabadkyoto@gmail.com.

    Story by Meyer Harroch, New York Jewish Travel Guide, and New York Jewish Guide

    The author took part in a press trip sponsored by the GIFU Prefecture and the Japan Travel Bureau (JTB).

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