Shabbat, Purim, Israeli Baseball, and More in Japan

by Jason Langsner / March 28, 2017

Although still, a bit jet lagged from a 12+ hour flight, I wanted to share my recent experience as a participant in a young Jewish American delegation to Japan.

For over five years I have been involved in B’nai B’rith International and its Young Leadership Network (BBYLN). B’nai B’rith is an organization that advocates for Global Jewry and human rights. I was recently invited with 11 other Jewish leaders from around the U.S. to be a part of the second #BBYLNinJPN cohort for the KAKEHASHI Project – a program of Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs – that aims to build bridges for the future and create deeper mutual understanding between the people of Japan and the U.S.

KAKEHASHI will bring 5,100 people to Japan this year. I was honored to be one of them. Fellow Jewish leaders from Chicago, Denver, Detroit, New York, and South Florida joined me on this trip. We visited Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Kobe from March 5-12, 2017, and learned a great deal about the history, economy, culture, and policy priorities of Japan. We were a part of the second delegation of BBYLN volunteers to be invited to Japan on KAKEHASHI.

After departing from Tokyo’s Narita Airport, the delegation and our Japanese guides started the week off at an authentic Japanese dinner – where we were instructed to take our shoes off and sit on pillows in front of our plated dinners. Our feast included miso soup, sashimi, chicken yakitori, pickled vegetables, and more.

As Jewish Americans representing B’nai B’rith International—the Jewish community’s oldest humanitarian and human rights advocacy organization— the program focused on the Jewish Community in Japan.The Japanese Jewish community is made up of about 1,000 people.The community includes American, European, and Israeli ex-pats who now live/work in Japan; as-well-as a very small percentage of native Japanese who identify as Jewish. We were invited to Shabbat services and dinner with members of the Jewish Community Center of Tokyo which is made up of 100 families. While on our trip we met the Chabad Rabbi and visited his synagogue in Kobe, and some members of our delegation joined the Tokyo Chabad community for a megillah reading on Purim.

A BBLYNinJPN participant shares his family’s story and thanks our hosts at Japan’s Holocaust Education Center

We met with the number two ranking diplomat in Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the former Japanese Ambassador to Israel, and the Deputy Head of Mission at the Embassy of Israel in Japan. We learned that Jewry in Japan pre-existed WWII, but it was small.  The city of Kobe, which had a small but vibrant Jewish community before the war.  In the early-1940s, Japan helped to save the lives of thousands of Jews from Poland and Lithuania by offering them temporary travel visas.  A Japanese Diplomat who served as Vice-Consul for the Empire of Japan in Lithuania, Chiune Siguhara, from that time is named one of the Righteous of the Gentiles in Yad Vashem for this act of humanity in writing over 2,100 visas and saving 6,000 lives. Each visa authorized a Jewish family to leave Eastern Europe and travel to Japan temporarily. We visited Japan’s Holocaust Education Center in Fukuyama and were serenaded by Israeli songs, in Hebrew, by local members of the Fukuyama community.

And yes, we did make it to a Team Israel baseball game in the Tokyo Dome where we joined in the chorus of Hatikivah before the game – a memory that none of us will soon forget!

The BBYLNinJPN delegation with our guide at the Israel v Cuba World Baseball Classic game in the Tokyo Dome

Beyond the exposure to the Japanese Jewish community and the important triangular ties between the U.S.-Japan-Israel, we also learned a great deal about Japanese history and culture. We spoke with a survivor of Hiroshima and visited the site where the atomic bomb was dropped, met with the CEO of a Japanese company, had dinner with young Japanese entrepreneurs, visited numerous historic sites, toured a Sake brewery, and some of us – who weren’t allergic – visited a cat café during our free time.

Speaking with the Rabbi of the Ohel Shelomo Synagogue in Kobe