I had the unusual pleasure this week of welcoming into my synagogue 10 young Japanese men and women scholars of Judaism, Jewish history, Zionism, anti-Semitism, and Jewish thought. Their biographies are all impressive and frankly, I was stunned by the depth and breadth of their intellectual and academic concerns and interests.
One young woman, a post-doctoral researcher, speaks fluent Yiddish and teaches it at Tokyo University. She intends to learn Ladino next because she is interested in the encounter between Jews and Muslims during the Middle Ages. Another wrote his PhD dissertation on Moses Nahmanides, the thirteenth century Torah commentator and mystic scholar. Others are experts in and teach the history of antisemitism and the Holocaust in Lithuania, monotheistic religious and business practices (e.g. Kashrut and Halal certification), the history of ancient Israel, the history of the Jewish people under the Fatimid dynasty between the 10th and 12th centuries C.E., contemporary Jewish thought, Martin Buber and theodicy, religious Zionism, 20th Century American Zionism, and modern Jewish history.
These young Japanese scholars are visiting the United States, courtesy of the Foreign Ministry of Japan, to meet American Jews and learn about our thinking, communal organization and political orientation as minority members in a diversely populated country.
After speaking with me, they drove to the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (the Reform Rabbinic seminary with schools also in education, non-profit management and Jewish studies) and spoke with students and faculty there. The inter-religious affairs department of the American Jewish Committee coordinated their meetings.
Jews first emigrated to Japan in the early 17th century from China and Spain and in the mid-19th century from Russia as they escaped pogroms. They settled in Kobe, Nagasaki and Tokyo thereby creating beachheads for many Jews escaping the Nazis. Others came from Iraq and Syria. There are consequently both Ashkenazic and Sephardic synagogues.
In 1938 the highest ministerial council of the government made the decision to prohibit the expulsion of Jews. During World War II approximately 5000 Jews were received by Japan and protected. Shanghai, under Japanese control, welcomed close to 12,000 Jews and refused German requests to expel them. After the war, many Jews moved on and settled in Europe, the United States and Israel. Others stayed, married Japanese and assimilated.
The Hebrew University demographer Sergio Della Pergola estimates that there are today between 1000 and 1400 Jews living in Japan almost all of whom are expatriates representing foreign businesses, banks, or financial institutions. He says that the Jewish community exists peacefully with its non-Jewish neighbors.
The group asked me a number of probing questions:
- How diverse is the American Jewish community today?
- Do the different American Jewish religious streams (i.e. Orthodox, Conservative, Reform) talk to each other?
- What are the tensions politically between the left and the right in relationship to Israel?
- What differences and tensions do I see between the American Jewish community and Israel?
- What do I think about the way Zionism is regarded today in America and around the world?
- What is Reform Zionism?
- What do I believe as a Reform Jew is the greatest challenge facing the American Jewish community?
- Is the American Jewish community diminishing in its numbers?
- How has my congregation changed since I first became Senior Rabbi here 30 years ago?
- What is my understanding of the place of the Holocaust in the thinking of the American Jewish community and how does Reform Judaism teach the Holocaust to the younger generation of Jews?
- How do I understand the role of God, the Holocaust and evil?
- What do I believe is the nature of evil and from where does it come?
I complemented them on the quality and probity of their questions all of which perplex modern Jewry. Each question required far more time to respond than we had together. I tried as best I could to offer some insights in the 90 minutes we had together.
We left each other with parting gifts. I presented to each of them a signed copy of my book “Why Judaism Matters – Letters of a Liberal Rabbi to his Children and the Millennial Generation” (Jewish Lights, 2017) and they offered me a book of articles written by their Japanese colleagues about Jewish identity, tradition, antisemitism, and history.
I wished them well on their journey and hoped that when I visit Japan I would be able to meet them in their own country.
We shook hands and bowed farewell.