A recent visit to Japan that afforded 13 young American-Jewish activists the chance to see the country in its authenticity and meet members of its Jewish community was, according to Danielle Ross, “a great success.”
As guests of the government on a visit from March 1 to 8, the group was part of its Kakehashi Project, whose aim is “to further develop the relationship between American Jews and Japan,” said Ross of Springfield, a program associate at B’nai B’rith International in New York. Ross and Adam Levoy of Montclair, a language arts teacher at River Dell Middle School in River Edge and a fellow member of B’nai B’rith, were the only two New Jerseyans on the trip.
Mark Ross, also of Springfield, has been involved with the organization since his teenage years as a member of the Westfield chapter of Aleph Zadik Aleph, the high school boys’ division of B’nai B’rith.
He is currently a member of the B’nai B’rith International executive committee and president of the B’nai B’rith Tri-State Region, which spans northern New Jersey, southern New York, and northeastern Pennsylvania.
His daughter is also an associate at Ross’ Shalom Chapels, which is owned and operated in Springfield, Whippany, and Chatham by Mark and his wife, Robin.
According to its website, the Kakehashi Project aims “to promote deeper mutual understanding among the people of Japan and the United States…and help young people develop wider perspectives to encourage active roles at the global level in the future.”
But for the March group — eight representatives of B’nai B’rith International’s Young Leadership Network and five of the predominantly Jewish Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity — the invitation “had a lot to do with the burgeoning relationship between Israel and Japan, as well as between Japan and the United States,” said Danielle Ross. “They wanted us to learn more about Japan.”
Japan has an estimated 2,000 Jews out of a total population of 126 million. Among the highlights of the trip was a visit to the Jewish Community Center in Tokyo.
“It has about 100 member families and it seemed based on the Conservative model, similar to Conservative shuls here, with a sanctuary, a social hall, and places for children to play,” she told NJ Jewish News in a March 11 phone interview.
“Some of the JCC members are intermarried with Japanese people and some have had conversion ceremonies. Some of the non-native Japanese were former American military personnel. Others moved to Japan for business reasons,” Ross added.
“The sanctuary was beautiful,” said Levoy in a March 14 phone interview. “We were told that Israelis who have moved to Japan are a lot more vocal and observant, whereas the Jews at the JCC are more laid back and are there for the cultural aspects.”
The delegation had no contact with the Makuya movement, a small Japanese-Christian sect founded in May 1948 at the same time Israel declared its independence. That group’s pro-Zionism is based on the belief that Israel is the fulfillment of biblical prophecies.
When the Kakehashi group met with a past president of the JCC, “he told us the Jews in Japan are basically like everybody else,” said Ross. “They work, sometimes they go to shul on weekends or when there is a special event. They have a seder on Passover.
“But they are very much a part of the Japanese culture, and they have embraced parts of Japanese culture that are similar to Jewish culture, such as the importance of family,” Ross said.
After the visit to Tokyo, the visitors, who ranged in age from 21 to 35, traveled to the city of Nikko, “where we visited a lot of famous shrines,” Ross said. Then they broke into small groups and spent two nights in the homes of Japanese families in the rice farming village of Ohtawara.
“We got a real sense of traditional Japanese culture, and it was a chance for the Japanese to learn about our Jewish culture. Some of the families had a grasp on English. Others did not speak English at all,” said Ross.
But wherever the Americans went, she said, they felt welcome.
“When we went to people’s homes they did not stop feeding us. They were like Jewish mothers,” she joked, noting that their hosts were “very understanding” of several of their Jewish visitors’ dietary restrictions and served vegetarian meals. They also respected the wishes of two of their guests not to travel on Shabbat.
Issues surrounding the history of United States-Japanese relations, including Japan’s 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and the American atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, “did come up a little,” said Ross. “We here talk a lot more about World War II than they do. But it did come up a couple of times. We learned that Japan did not expel its Jews during the war and did not have an issue with the Jews and the Jewish community.
“There is not a whole lot of anti-Semitism in Japan, but occasionally it pops up,” she added. “I think that is because they are very accepting of [different] religions in Japan.”
Both Ross and Levoy said they would like to return.
“It was amazing,” he said. “Everyone got to experience Japan in its authenticity, not as a tourist but as a person experiencing a culture. It was very peaceful and clean. The people were very hospitable.”
“I would go back again,” said Ross. “We only got a taste of Japan, but it was a great success.”