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Op-Ed: In Japan, pride in the Jewish response to tsunami

TOKYO (JTA) — As I sit here in Tokyo with the first anniversary of the tsunami fast approaching, I recall my surprise the first time a Japanese person thanked me, as a Jew, for Israel’s immediate response to the disaster. It was certainly not the time to instruct that well-meaning person that not all Jews are from Israel — the average Japanese does not make a distinction between them — so instead I proudly basked in the thought of Israel being the first country to come to Japan’s aid with its emergency field hospital.

The second time, however, I was not caught off guard: I had prepared a little speech in which I told of what the the Jewish Community of Japan, of which I am the rabbi, was doing together with the global Jewish community to help people in the face of crisis. I was able to report on stories of individual members of our community — mostly made up of American, European and Israeli Jews — who in the first hours after the disaster purchased tons of flour and food, and managed to deliver it to the displaced. I also told them about the many local Jews who organized food drives, raised money and took time from work to volunteer with the cleanup.

Most especially, I told them the tale of the 11-year-old girl from our thriving Hebrew school who singlehandedly organized the first bicycle drive through which she collected nearly 100 pairs of shoes to distribute in a destitute town in the north of Japan.

I have told these stories many times. But what really impresses the people here is the story of the almost instantaneous global Jewish response to the disaster. The effort came in many forms, such as Chabad, the Israeli field hospital or IsraAID. For us at the Jewish Community of Japan, the effort manifested itself in our partnership with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which reached out to us within 24 hours of the earthquake offering its support.

In the first days after the disaster, those who remained in Japan felt the urgency to do something. This desire was combined with the fear and anxiety caused by the conflicting reports about the situation. It was a “time to act for the Lord,” but it was not clear what we could do. Some 2,000 Jews are living in Japan, and none of us had been affected irreversibly by the quake, thank God. However, the tragedy we faced as a nation was overwhelming.

As such, it was deeply important that our individual efforts at the time were soon combined with the help of those from outside Japan. It represented a powerful vehicle for us to act quickly and collectively on our natural desire to help. After all, we wanted our country to know that we care for her and her people, as the Talmud says, “at a time when the community is in distress, none should say: I’ll go to the privacy of my home and have a party.”

Since those early days, we have made a lasting impact on the life of tens of thousands of individuals. By combining the Jewish Community of Japan’s local guidance — including accessing our friends and family, business relationships and closeness to Japanese society — and the JDC’s expertise in disaster relief, we’ve put programs into action to support various groups in the disaster areas – for children, the deaf and hearing impaired, the elderly, the physically disabled and the displaced. Among our many achievements, we have brought in Israeli post-trauma specialists who have worked and trained the local social workers and teachers to help children suffering in fear, and found ways, in addition to our other work, to provide meals for those living in evacuation shelters and temporary housing.

But what I believe is the biggest success yet is the establishment of 13 community cafes in Ishinomaki, the town hit the hardest by the tsunami. I knew full well about these cafes, a venue for displaced people of the area to gather and receive informal psychological support while participating in activities, classes and programs, or plain, old-fashioned schmoozing.

I was pleasantly surprised to have another moment of Jewish pride, when at one of the many interfaith meetings I attend, a church minister lauded the cafes as a successful example of outreach and support. At that moment I could not help myself and expressed with true satisfaction that these cafes had been possible thanks to the generosity and expertise of the Jewish community. Seeing the look of positive surprise on the faces of my fellow clergy, I couldn’t help but wonder, “Is this the bread coming back to us upon the water?”

Perhaps no greater example of this connection between the Jews of Japan and our neighbors is our project to repair the Buddhist Komyogi Temple in Oshu. As part of the effort, we are creating a joint program to provide a respite for the beleaguered children of Rikuzentakata, a city devastated by the tsunami. Through children’s activities and numerous opportunities for exchange between our families and theirs, a dialogue between our communities will be built on the ideals of mutual responsibility and human compassion. All of this, of course, would not be possible without the support of Jews from abroad.

A constant source of "naches" for me as a rabbi, this outpouring of help speaks to one of the Jewish values I cherish most, tikkun olam. It also highlights, perhaps better than anything I have ever seen, the strengthening of bridges existing between the Japanese people and Israel and the Jews. Despite my initial reaction to the compliment from my Japanese neighbor, I have seen in the last year that we are one people. And together we can save lives, wherever in the world we are needed.

(Antonio Di Gesu, a native of Italy and graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, is the rabbi of the Jewish Community of Japan.)

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