Nagoya – Seven years ago, Shmuel Vishedsky got a call from the chief rabbi of Japan to fill the position of head rabbi for the Jewish Community of Kansai. Rabbi Vishedsky packed up with his family, said goodbye to his parents and friends, and arrived in Kobe two weeks later. Ever since then, he has been the religious leader of Kobe and Kansai’s small, historic and tight-knit Jewish community, and will lead the community in services this Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, which lasts from Dec. 10 through 18.
1. Why did you decide to become a rabbi? After I got married, I told my wife that I wanted to help people in need and suggested to her that I wanted to become a rabbi, to which she agreed. I was already trained in rabbinical studies, but needed a bit more studying to be ordained. I have been a rabbi ever since.
2. Is it difficult to be an observant Jew in Japan? It is not easy to be a Jew, and it is much harder to be a Jew in Japan than in the rest of the world where there are large Jewish communities. There is no kosher food available, and we have to take care of everything ourselves.
3. How would you describe Hanukkah to a Japanese person? Hanukkah reminds people that miracles do happen. It symbolizes that the small and weak can challenge and defeat a bigger adversary. The Japanese know very well that in sumo the larger the opponent doesn’t always guarantee victory. Hanukkah also represents the challenge within ourselves to defeat our own inner obstacles.
4. What will you do to celebrate Hanukkah this year? There will be a candle lighting of the menorah in the synagogue followed by food and drink. Also, there will be the lighting of the giant menorah in Tokyo this Hanukkah.
5. What is your favorite Jewish festival? I enjoy all of the holidays. If I had to choose one, I would say Passover.
6. Why Passover? Passover because we need to euphemistically clean ourselves for this holiday. Not only clean our houses, but also ourselves, and it’s hard work. We have to prepare matzo, wine and food. On Passover we typically get over 400 guests at our synagogue.
7. What is a teaching of Judaism that you hold very central to your core beliefs? The Torah, the Jewish holy scripture, lists 613 commandments that Jews are to live by. All of them are important, however there is one that the Lubavitcher Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson says is the most important. It is, “Love everyone as you love yourself.” These are words that I live by and are central to my core beliefs.
8. What are the origins of the Jewish Community of Kansai? The Jewish Community of Kansai was founded in 1912. During World War II, the community, with the help of Chiune Sugihara and the citizens of Kobe, were able to save thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing persecution in Europe. Our original synagogue was aerial-bombed by the U.S. during the war, so after 1945 the community moved to its present location in Kitanocho.
9. What do you think makes the Jewish community in Kobe unique? The Kobe Jewish community is like one big family and is truly diverse. We have congregants from around the world ranging from Argentina, France, Iran, Morocco, the U.S., Ukraine, Israel and Canada, to name a few.
10. Has the Jewish community in Kobe changed over time? When I first arrived seven years ago, the Jewish community of Kobe was small, and wasn’t as active as it is now. Today, we have services every Shabbat and celebrate the Jewish holidays throughout the year. We also offer kosher food. In a very real sense, we are similar to any Jewish community that you’d find anywhere else in the world.
11. How has the pandemic affected the Jewish Community in Kansai? 2020 has been a challenge for the community because of COVID-19. We have met the challenge during the lockdown period over the Passover season by sending out over 400 “Passover kits” to our congregants in the community. If anything, it has made our community stronger.
12. What do people in Japan tend to misunderstand about Jews and Judaism? One thing that I find is hard for Japanese to understand is the deep level of commitment that Jews have for religious teachings. For example, driving a car on Shabbat is religiously prohibited, unless it is a life-or-death situation. This is hard for the Japanese to fathom this concept, based on my observations.
13. Are there certain elements of Japanese culture you feel resonate with Judaism? I see several similarities. Similar to Jewish culture, the Japanese value their families and have a deep respect for learning. Also, there is a strong penchant for obeying rules and guidelines.
14. What about elements of Japanese culture that clash with Judaism? One of the first things that surprised me about living in Japan was the level of silence on trains, buses and other forms of public transportation. This is very different from Israel. The Japanese respect silence, and I like this.
15. There are a few Jewish memorial sites in Japan. There are the Holocaust museums in Fukushima and Hiroshima prefectures, and the Chiune Sugihara Memorial in Gifu Prefecture. What was visiting these sites like? They gave me the impression that the Japanese are similar to the Jewish people in that it is important in both cultures to teach the next generation. I’m honored and proud that these memorials stand in Japan.
16. Are there Jewish sites in the Kansai region, too? Some of the historical Jewish sites in the area are our synagogue, the Jewish cemetery on Mount Futatabi and the wall of the original Jewish refugee housing center in Kitanocho.
17. Where do you recommend guests go in Kansai when they visit from overseas? Kansai, like the rest of Japan, is blessed with an abundance of natural beauty. I recommend going to the mountains to see the change of seasons, and the beautiful Seto Inland Sea.
18. Do you have a relationship with the other Jewish communities in Japan and Asia? Yes, we have good relations with Jewish communities in Japan and throughout Asia. These include the Chabad House of Tokyo with Chief Rabbi Mendi Sudakevich, and the Jewish communities of Tokyo, Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand, Beijing and Seoul.
19. Two traditional Hanukkah foods are latkes and jelly doughnuts. Your preference? Both!
20. Who in your family tends to win at dreidel, the Hanukkah gambling game? My wife. I don’t know how she does it, but she wins most of the time.
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