Tokyo rabbi gives unconditionally

Chabad House mission: 'If we have one, we give two; if we have two, we give four'

by Daniel Robson

“Whatever we have, we give 100 percent,” says Binyomin Edery, the 33-year-old chief rabbi at Chabad House in Tokyo. “Our bank account is at zero! If we have one, we give two; if we have two, we give four. That’s what we do.”

Chabad-Lubavitch is a Hasidic branch of Judaism that stems from cabala (“The original cabala, not the fashionable Madonna one,” jokes the rabbi). Founded in Belarus in the late 18th century, it is now based in Brooklyn and has established more than 3,000 bases in 75 countries around the world, which officially serve to prepare their host city for the coming of the Messiah, whose manifestation Hasidic Jews believe will restore peace on earth.

In practice, these Chabad Houses provide community support and religious services for Jewish expats and travelers, as well as a place for locals to learn about Judaism and the Torah. Chabad-Lubavitch stresses an inclusive approach to religion, earning its seventh and last leader, the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, a Congressional Gold Medal.

“Chabad is for Jews, but for non-Jews as well,” Edery explains. “We don’t open only for Jews, because God created everyone, so we create for everyone. Most of our friends here are Japanese. We’re not trying to convert people. God created many different nations, and we don’t need to bother them to change or become kosher. They can take parts of Judaism into their life and do whatever they want.”

“You get so much more than what you give,” says Edery’s wife, Efrat, 32, a former teacher who works closely with her husband in running Chabad House as well as home-schooling their five children, aged between 1 and 9. “We’ve had Muslims here, black people, Asian people, everyone. And that’s the point. God doesn’t make any junk.”

To become a rabbi, Edery studied from the age of 13 until he was 21 in his native Israel and in Brooklyn. His first post was a year of outreach work in New Delhi; there he learned from backpackers that Japan had scant Jewish presence.

After returning to Brooklyn, he was introduced to Efrat by a friend of her mother, and the pair quickly hatched the idea of starting a Chabad community in Tokyo. They married in 1999 and after a short spell in Israel decided to spend a week in Tokyo that December to celebrate Hanukkah and see the lay of the land.

They never left. Local Jewish families asked them to stay and help nurture and expand the community, even helping the young couple find a home and covering their costs.

“I’ve never left Japan since then,” says Edery, whose parents care for mentally disabled war victims. “After a few years I went to Israel, but I haven’t been (back) in five years. My father hasn’t seen my children yet. But we have a mission here. We take calls at all times, day or night. I cannot close the door.”

After 2 1/2 years of living, educating and entertaining in that first Chabad House — bar mitzvahs, circumcisions, holiday services — they moved to a new building donated rent-free by a Japanese property developer.

“He paid all the costs, the utilities,” says Edery. “I said to him several times, ‘Sakamoto, are you mad? Why did you give this to me?’ He said, ‘I felt it didn’t belong to me. Someone needed to use it.’ “

Now based in a house in Omori, Ota Ward, the Ederys provide an open home for Jews living in or passing through Tokyo, as well as offering services on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays plus various humanitarian programs. Years of perseverance led in 2005 to kosher meat becoming available fresh in Japan for the first time ever, now sold in the National Azabu grocery store in Tokyo and through Chabad’s mail-order service.

Chabad and its helpers anonymously deliver food parcels to homeless people or those in low-grade government apartments; the rabbi goes to visit people in prisons and hospitals, whether they are Jews or Japanese; and by the end of 2009, marking their 10th anniversary in Japan, they intend to open a 600-sq.-meter soup kitchen in Asakusa to provide free meals to the needy. All of these services are provided for free, though donations help make it possible.

“I say my business is with the soul,” says Edery. “Some organizations, they ask you to pray to Jesus or something in return for free food. I’ve seen it in Ueno Park. But we will never do that. We just create to give unconditionally. Some people need.”

At Chabad’s celebration of the Passover festival last April, 100 or so people enjoyed a traditional meal and prayer service, all without charge. Attendees included Jews from around the world — some based in Japan, some just passing through — as well as plenty of Japanese and mixed couples. The service was conducted in Hebrew and English, with an upbeat participatory nature that got everyone involved.

You can expect similar energy when Chabad celebrates Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) this weekend. Efrat says readers wishing to attend on Saturday or Sunday can simply turn up without a reservation, or call ahead to have someone meet them at JR Omori Station (most likely one of their surprisingly mature children). There will also be events marking Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) on Sept. 27 and 28 and Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles) next month.

“Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson wanted to make the world ready for the Messiah, so the world will be full of goodness and kindness,” says Edery. “It means evil will no longer exist. It means Roppongi will be a good place for not just nightclubs anymore. Today, in Roppongi, a lot of people are suffering: the girls who work there, the drug dealers selling there, the people who drink alcohol night by night and day by day. In the end they have no children; there’s no future in that.

“The world will be a good place in the end because people are already looking for that. Day by day, I can see the results. We could write several books about our experiences here.”

When asked whether there are any aspects of Jewish culture that are difficult to maintain in Japan, Edery quickly answers: “It’s not hard. When you like it, it’s easy. People who climb Everest, they don’t think it’s hard. They do it because they like it.”

But of course, there are challenges. The couple struggle with the Japanese language, speaking just enough to discuss “donations, prayers and God.”

And Efrat admits that they were turned away by a real estate agent when they first arrived in Japan — after having already signed the contract and received the keys — on the grounds of her husband’s appearance.

Binyomin explains, “In the beginning, most Japanese people didn’t know what an orthodox Jew looked like. People asked my wife, ‘Is he a magician?’ They were afraid some birds were going to fly out of my hat! But after so many years, the people around us now know very well about the crazy orthodox Jewish family that lives here.”

And here they remain — until, according to Efrat, “the Messiah comes!”

For more information about Chabad House and its Rosh Hashanah services and meals on Sept. 19 and 20, call (03) 3772-7707 or visit