JWR Wandering Jews

Jewish World Review Sept. 24, 1998 / 4 Tishrei, 5759

Kobe Diarist

An Oriental Rosh Hashana

By Shana Haberman

"In all their long history, the Jewish people have done scarcely anything more wonderful than to create the synagogue. No human institution has a longer continuous history, and none has done more for the uplifting of the human race."

--- Robert T. Herford, Christian scholar

I BOARDED THE TRAIN for Kobe early that morning, with some trepidation. My curiosity about what awaited me was mingled with a tinge of sadness and melancholy.

For the first time in my life, I would be separated from my family for the High Holy Days, a special time that over the years, I had come to associate with the wonderful smells of my mother's freshly baked challah, the warm wishes of Shanah Tovah greetings extended by relatives as they entered our home for lunch following services, and the sweet taste of apples dipped in honey.

Naturally, these were anxieties I had struggled with prior to my departure to teach English in Japan for a year. I knew that celebrating Jewish holidays in the absence of family and loved ones would be especially difficult, but these concerns seemed almost petty in light of the cultural experience I knew awaited me in Japan.

After some investigation, I learned there were two active synagogues in Japan, one in Tokyo and the other in Kobe. Eager to get a first-hand taste of what has traditionally been considered a cultural center of Japan, and attracted to its smaller-sized congregation, I decided to spend the High Holy Days at Ohel Shlomo Synagogue in Kobe.

As soon as I entered the synagogue (admittedly only after stumbling into a Buddhist temple that I mistook for the shul), I knew that I had made the right choice. The shul appealed to me immediately with its small size, its warm decor and its overall heimishe feel. Entering its doors was for me like entering a whole other world, far removed from the foreign and sometimes bewildering world of Japan.

Seated in the women's section, I couldn't help but notice the highly eclectic mixture of people around me. Although the service was conducted in the Orthodox Sephardi tradition (a foreign combination for a Conservative Ashkenazi like myself), the congregants themselves appeared to be neither Orthodox nor Sephardi. This observation, coupled with my curiosity about the names on the synagogue's memorial tablet, prompted me to inquire about the origins of the shul and ultimately to learn about the rich history of Ohel Shlomo.


BEGINNING IN THE EARLY 1930S and continuing into the early 1940s, Kobe was a processing center for Jewish refugees arriving from China, Russia and the Middle East. Although it was merely a transit point for most as they were en route to North America, many chose to make Kobe their permanent home. They viewed Japan as a safe haven where they could enjoy freedom of religion --- a welcome change from the religious intolerance and persecution they had encountered in their home countries.

In 1931, a congregation and Jewish community was started at Kitaoka House in the Yamamoto Dori district of Kobe, to meet the needs of the growing Jewish community. By 1939, the congregation was predominantly Sephardi and the synagogue moved to a new location. Yet another space was rented by early 1941 to accommodate the onslaught of new Ashkenazi refugees arriving from Eastern Europe. Thus, a Sephardi and an Ashkenazi congregation coexisted in Kobe for some time.

Just before the outbreak of World War II, Rahmo Sassoon, a Syrian Jew, emigrated to Japan. Shortly after his arrival, he purchased a plot of land for his business. The warehouse built on this land soon came to be used for social activities such as card clubs, and then as a place of worship. The Jews of Kobe gradually began to make donations, but as Victory Kelly, who came to Kobe from Burma in 1935 and still resides in the Japanese city, recalls, "There was no real purpose for these donations."

In 1960, Rahmo Sassoon sold this plot of land to his brother Edmund. Recognizing that the time had come to build a proper edifice to house a synagogue, the leaders of Kobe's Jewish community decided that Sassoon's plot of land would be the ideal location. They raised 10 million yen, but were still short of the 23 million yen sought by its owner. In addition, the community was divided in its opinions about the building of a new synagogue. Many lamented that there simply were not enough funds within the community to sustain such an ambitious project.

Undeterred by the doubters and determined to see his vision of a self-contained synagogue in Kobe realized, Kelly instructed Edmund Sassoon to draw up a contract for the sale of his land. He remembers saying to a then highly skeptical founding president, Jack Gotlieb: "Sign the document, we'll find the money." When asked where the money could be found, Kelly raised his hands to heaven and responded: "With G-d." And so began a campaign spearheaded by founding chair Kelly to build Ohel Shlomo Synagogue.

Once the land was paid off, a fundraising campaign began for the building of the synagogue. Private donations and promissory notes were the main sources of funds raised in the campaign, with social events like Purim parties supplementing that revenue. As an added incentive, Kelly promised seats in the synagogue to the major donors, encouraging people to give for the community and "in the name of G-d." By 1970, the fundraising campaign had achieved its goal, raising and impressive 30 million yen.

The opening ceremony for Ohel Shlomo Synagogue took place on March 10, 1970, and Kelly proudly recalls that Japanese priests, government officials and dignitaries participated to mark the occasion. At that time, the building housed not only a synagogue, but also a Hebrew school. Rather than pay the salary for a full-time rabbi and/or cantor, the congregation took it upon themselves to oversee the daily running and organization of the shul. In 1971, the shul was registered with the local Japanese government and the Jewish community of Kobe gained "official" status.

At that time, the Jewish community of Kobe had approximately 150 families. Sadly, this number has now been reduced to five or six families. Most of the older generation of Kobe Jews have died. Some members of the community, who had no surviving family members in Japan, have scattered to other areas of the world. Hence, Ohel Shlomo's congregation is now predominantly comprised of transients -- people like myself who come for the High Holy Days or the occasional Shabbes service from surrounding areas like Kyoto and Osaka.

This leaves the future of Ohel Shlomo Synagogue in a rather precarious state. Transients to not play an active role in the daily running and management of the shul and funding through private donations is limited.

Moreover, the synagogue must now raise 18 million yen ($210,000) to repair the damage wrought by the Great Hanshin earthquake of 1995. Despite what may appear to be an insurmountable challenge, Kelly expressed confidence in the continued support of Kobe's Jewish community.

"There will always be some people who have a vested interest in the continued existence of this shul," Kelly said, "whether it be a wealthy businessman in Tokyo whose grandfather was a founding member or a traveler like yourself just passing through."


AFTER THE CONCLUSION of the service on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, my fears of returning home with an empty stomach and a heavy heart were quickly allayed by the tantalizing sight of a lunch buffet to be served at the shul. The meal offered the perfect opportunity to satisfy my curiosity regarding the eclectic crowd I had surveyed during the service. And "transients" they certainly were -- exchange students at a Japanese university for the semester, English teachers working in Japan for the year, a visiting rabbi and his wife from Brooklyn and young Israeli jewelry vendors taking advantage of the financial benefits of temporarily working in Japan, among others.

I, for one, enjoyed this festive meal in a truly unique way. There is something about being so many thousand of miles from home and all that is familiar, and yet still feeling a sense of belonging and community that simply cannot be adequately expressed in words -- not to mention the taste of lukshen kugel, carrot tzimmes, challah, apples and honey and other traditional Rosh Hashanah fare. Indeed, I was so deeply moved by the experience that I found myself at a loss for words when I tried to express my heartfelt gratitude to the chef, an Israeli expatriot living in Kobe, who had prepared the meal with his wife.

The sound of the shofar, blown by Rahmo Sassoon's nephew, sent a shiver up my spine, and many emotions ran through me. It seemed as though the sounds of that shofar echoed the history of the Jewish community of Kobe and Ohel Shlomo Synagogue, and indeed, symbolized the unity of Jews all over the world. I couldn't help but think of how proudly Sassoon must be looking down on his nephew from Tokyo with his family to spend the holidays at Ohel Shlomo.

And this in turn triggered thoughts of my own grandfather who had been a cantor in various shuls throughout Hungary and would surely have appreciated seeing his granddaughter in a shul with such a rich history in such a far away land. With the sound of that shofar, I finally understood why many have suggested that the synagogue has been and still is the most potent institution for Jewish continuity throughout our history.

I left Kobe with the comforting knowledge that the following week, when I boarded the train to Sannomiya Station in Kobe for Yom Kippur, I would not do so half-heartedly. I would miss my family back home in Canada as much as ever, but could now look forward to returning to the welcoming doors of Ohel Shlomo Synagogue, a unique place of worship for Jews in Japan.


Courtesy of the Canadian Jewish News