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Around the Jewish World Tolerance, Respect for Tradition Hallmarks of Jews Living in Japan

November 13, 2003
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In the half-century since it was founded, the Jewish Community Center of Japan has always prided itself on being able to accommodate any request for a minyan, even at short notice.

Community members say that many visiting Jews, who may not be religiously observant at home, suddenly seem to yearn for a connection with their brethren in an exotic land.

The actor Edward G. Robinson once called the center saying, “I need a minyan,” recalls Bernard Valier, who spent 17 years in Japan starting in 1953.

The small but diverse congregation that makes up the center’s community was able to give Robinson — born Emmanuel Goldenberg — his minyan, as it did for other visiting notables on short notice, says Valier, who now lives in London.

Flexibility and tolerance has been a theme at the center, known simply as the Jewish Community of Japan, for 50 years.

“We do not describe ourselves as Conservative or Reform or Orthodox, but simply as Jewish,” says the community’s president, Daniel Turk. “We have services in different formats, languages and levels of participation.”

The overwhelming majority of Tokyo’s Jews prefer services that do not make ritualistic distinction between men and women. A smaller group of the center’s members hold Orthodox services.

“We had to find a way to live together, pray together and fight together,” says Rabbi Marvin Tokayer of New York, who was the popular spiritual leader of the community for 10 years.

The first known minyan in Japan took place in 1889 and the first synagogue was established in the 1890s in Nagasaki. Prior to World War II, the majority of Jews in Japan lived in Kobe and Yokohama. The Jewish cemetery in Yokohama has tombstones dating back to 1869.

The Jewish Community of Japan, in Tokyo, was established March 21, 1953, founded by merchant Jews primarily from the Chinese cities of Harbin and Shanghai.

“The criteria to be a member was to be able to speak Russian, play poker and drink vodka,” remembers former community president Ernie Salomon, a Tokyo resident since 1950.

Shortly after its inception, the community center was raided by police during a “Monte Carlo Night.” Police believed that the Jews were reopening an illegal casino, which had been shuttered not long before in another part of the neighborhood. Two board members were among those arrested.

The founder of Tokyo’s organized Jewish community was a Russian textile businessman, Anatole Ponve, who established the Kobe synagogue in 1937.

During the early 1940s, Ponve was among those who mobilized a massive effort to take care of Jewish refugees from Europe.

After the war, Ponve, the community’s first president, personally guaranteed a loan from Chase Manhattan Bank for the purchase of the land for the community center from a Japanese family in the upscale Hiroo District.

The Jewish Community of Japan, which serves 150 families, is foremost a religious institution with a synagogue known as Beth David, named for the father of one the community’s early leaders and benefactors, Shoul Eisenberg, who later became a leading industrialist in Israel.

In the early years, the dining room at the center was not kosher — beef stroganoff was a favorite dish — but that changed when a new rabbi threatened to quit if the kitchen was not made kosher. In recent decades, the center’s kitchen has been under rabbinical supervision.

Founding members, while not very religiously observant, were enthusiastic about funding their fledgling community. At the initial fund-raiser in 1953, when the community ran out of items to auction, an empty box was successfully put up for bid.

That charitable spirit was evident earlier this month at the community center’s 50th anniversary gala celebration.

A bottle of “slightly used” mineral water was auctioned off for about $140 and then graciously donated back to the synagogue. The winner of a $2,200 cash lottery also donated the money back to the community.

The money raised by the gala, held Nov. 1 at the Tokyo American Club, likely will mean the community center will be in the black for the first time in decades.

“Our endowment has diminished significantly over the years,” Turk says. “Recently, we have been focusing considerable attention and effort trying to manage our revenue and expenses to a point where our normal operations are self-sufficient.”

The celebration drew about 200 people, including current or former community members from across Japan, Europe and North America. A number of Japanese guests also attended.

The Jewish Community of Japan actually has a number of Japanese members, including spouses of Jewish members, some of whom have converted to Judaism. There also are a small number of Japanese who have converted for reasons unrelated to marriage.

Japan never has had a significant indigenous Jewish population, and there is little history of note between Japan and the Jewish people.

“It is probably fair to say that even educated people have only a fragmentary and superficial knowledge of the Jewish people,” Turk says.

That lack of familiarity was evident during a comedy routine at the gala evening, which featured a “Jewish acolyte” trekking to the top of a mountain to seek enlightenment from a “Buddhist monk.”

A Japanese aerospace business executive, befuddled by the skit, turned to his Jewish host after watching the faux monk and asked seriously, “Is that Jesus Christ?”

The lack of encounters between Jews and Japanese also has meant that there has been little of the hostility experienced by Jews in many other lands.

During World War II, the Japanese were encouraged by their Nazi allies to exterminate Jews under their control especially those in Shanghai — but the Japanese had no inclination to comply.

“In fact, Jews who made it to Japan were saved as a result,” Turk says.

Jews in Japan are more likely to experience philo-Semitism, with magazine articles expressing admiration for Jewish talent, intelligence and success.

Prince Mikasa, the youngest brother of the late Emperor Hirohito, is among the notable friends of the Jews in Japan.

“He reads Hebrew well and, in his younger days, not infrequently visited our center, such as to participate in the Passover Seder,” Turk says.

A number of other Japanese members also speak fluent Hebrew and are synagogue regulars.

The current rabbi, Henri Noach, is still learning Japanese, but he is fluent in French, Hebrew and English — which helps him serve the center’s families, who are diverse in nationalities and native languages.

“The fact that one rabbi has to serve the needs of people who are so different makes the job challenging and exhilarating,” Noach says.

Noach, a Conservative rabbi, also is charged with determining the suitability of conversion candidates.

He says Japanese “have less preconceptions about Judaism, because it’s not part of their historical and cultural orbit. In this sense, they may be less resistant to absorbing core concepts in Judaism.”

Japanese conversion candidates appear to want to commit themselves to an active Jewish life for the sake of their spouses and are prepared to raise their children as Jews, Noach says, noting that those with Israeli spouses are “highly motivated,” with many planning to move to Israel.

Noach says he frequently is asked what people thought when he told them he was moving from Belgium to Japan to take over the pulpit in Tokyo.

“My family thought that I was mishugunah,” Noach says. “My friends and colleagues, however, generally thought it was cool. Maybe they’re both right.”

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