It’s gratifying to learn that Israel and the Jewish people have devoted friends in Japan, despite the fact that BDS is in the air, that anti-Semitism is on the rise worldwide, and that anti-Israel sentiment remains in the media.
There is an amazing Japanese choir whose description defies belief. Briefly – this choral group, the Shinonome Chorus (Makhelat Hashachar in Hebrew), is part of a Japanese Protestant religious movement called Beit Shalom (House of Peace) or Japan Christian Friends of Israel. It’s a Christian group which recognizes Jews as the chosen people, and whose mission it is to pray for the Jewish people, for peace in Jerusalem, and the coming of the Messiah.
On a Jewish tour of China and Japan about seven years ago, we had the privilege of hearing this choir sing Hebrew and Yiddish folksongs and classic tunes. When we learned about the history and mission of this astounding group, it was easy to fall in love with them, dressed in their colorful Japanese kimonos, their ‘neshamot’ [beautiful souls] and ‘ruach’ [spirit] present in their singing. After the concert ended, we met and mingled with Takeo Sato, Choir Director, and the choir participants and members of Beit Shalom, as we enjoyed a Kosher dinner in their space, filled with Israeli art and Judaica.
When visitors were asked for suggestions for new venues in North America for future concerts, we were happy to oblige, and a few years later, we were delighted to hear them again in the NY area. See the choir’s website with its many photos and links to music; the group visits and tours Israel and North America on alternate years. Once again, they will be touring in North America this fall. Treat yourself; if you are near one of the cities where they are performing, do attend!
Suggest — call in advance and confirm time and fee, if any. Makhelat Hashachar does not accept any remuneration for its concerts, though some synagogues may set a concert fee.
This year’s itinerary includes the following locations.
– Tues October 26th — 7:30 p.m.
Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles, CA (310) 474-1518
– Wednesday October 27th — 7 p.m.
Temple Isaiah, 45 Risa Rd, Lafayette, CA
(925) 283-8575 Cantor Leigh Korn
-Saturday, October 29th — 7:30 p.m.
Jewish Community Board of Akron, 750 White Pond Dr, Akron, OH Julie Katz: (330) 835-0005
– Sunday, October 30th — 7 p.m.
Brotherhood Synagogue, 28 Gramercy Park South,
New York, NY
(212)674-5750/ Cantor Michael Weis-
-Tuesday, November 1st – 7:30 pm
Beth Sholom Congregation 8231 Old York Rd, Elkins Park, PA (215)887-1342/ Cantor Jeffrey Weber
-Thursday, November 3rd – 7 p.m.
Congregation Adath Jeshurun 2401 Woodbourne Ave, Louisville, KY
(502)458-5359 Cantor David Lipp
– Saturday, November 5th – 8 p.m.
Temple Sinai 210 Wilson Ave, Toronto, ON M5M 3B1 (416) 487-4161
Several YouTubes give a taste of their performances, such as this one in 2010, and this ‘ruach’ filled performance of Hannah Senesh’s ‘Eli, Eli’ to a visiting group in Kyoto. In 2015 they gave this performance for SHALVA, the organization in Jerusalem for severely disabled children. The choir also performed at Hadassah International.
As early as 1938, Father Takeji Otsuki felt this calling from God, commanding him to work towards the establishment of a Jewish state. With the end of World War II, he established the Japan Christian Friends of Israel organization, which prayed daily for the return to Zion and for peace of Jerusalem. In the 1960s, the organization began sending volunteers to kibbutzim in Israel, and students to Hebrew University, where they studied Hebrew, Bible and Jewish thought. The members of Beit Shalom do not want to convert Jews to Christianity, and they don’t wish to convert to Judaism themselves. They just want to support world peace, which they believe will come through the State of Israel and world Jewry.
Aside from their love of Hebrew melodies and support of Israel, many Beit Shalom followers display a Magen David outside their homes, and have Judaica and photos of famous Israelis inside their homes. In the church where we enjoyed their performance, a huge Israeli flag hangs side by side with a Japanese flag, along with other plaques in Hebrew. The people are gracious in another way also, offering a three day stay in guest houses to any Jewish person who wishes to visit, space permitting, and pre-arranged with the group.
Today there are more than 100 churches and 10,000 followers in Japan. The followers do not observe Jewish holidays or practice Jewish rituals; their interest is Hebrew music and Israeli culture and study of Hebrew language.
There is a JNF Garden in Israel in honor of the group’s pro-Israel support, and in 2012 on their visit to Israel, they added an almond tree to the grove. At the end of the tree planting ceremony, its current leader, Takeo Sato, concluded his speech with the favorite biblical verse of his guide and teacher Father Otsuki: “For Zion’s sake will I not hold my peace, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest…” (Isaiah: 62:1)
Father Otsuki died at the age of 98 on September 10, 2004. Besides founding Beit Shalom, Otsuki also established the Mizra Society of Friends of the Hebrew University, which provides scholarships for students and researchers at the University. In 1997, a chair in Bible studies was established at the University in his honor; in 1994, the Hebrew University awarded Father Otsuki an honorary fellowship in recognition of his support. At his death, [then] Hebrew University President Menachem Magidor’s statement read: “The Hebrew University community mourns the death of this great man, a man of vision and faith, a true friend of the Jewish people, the State of Israel, Jerusalem and the Hebrew University.”
Even though there are fewer than 1,000 Japanese Jewish residents in Japan, there is a Holocaust Museum built in Fukiyama, a city near Hiroshma, which opened in 1995, dedicated to teaching Holocaust history; many students visit annually. Outside the center, ‘Anne’s roses’ bloom, named for Anne Frank. They are the same species that grew outside the house where the Frank family hid; these roses were sent by Otto Frank, Anne’s father, to Father Otsuki.
Watching and listening to these Christian Zionists from Japan singing in Hebrew, speaking to them in Hebrew, was truly astounding and inspiring! They’ve been performing in North America and Israel for over 20 years. Following the horrific earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in 2011 which killed over 20,000 people, the choir added a moving and popular Japanese song to their performances; it’s a song of hope and is an amazing addition to their Hebrew and Yiddish repertoire. In the year following the earthquake, when they performed at a NY synagogue, we had the pleasure of hearing them sing that song during the performance, and then once again when they visited and performed at the Tribute Center, the 9/11 Museum in Manhattan. Although the choir mostly consists of young people, there is an age range; one elderly member of the choir, a Hiroshima survivor himself, was in tears after visiting and singing.
This group is so special! A visit to hear this choir might just be the perfect stop until you make your own travel plans to visit Japan!