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Don’t Abandon the Japanese Jewish Community

Don’t Abandon the Japanese Jewish Community

One man’s experience as the only rabbi for Japan and the Far East

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Photo: Gary Mcinnes
Photo: Gary Mcinnes

After I graduated from rabbinical school I served as a chaplain in the United States Air Force in Japan. Upon returning to the United States in 1967, I took a position as junior rabbi at a synagogue in Great Neck, New York.

The overseer of the kosher kitchen, mashgiach, was Rabbi Elya Gross, a Chabad-Lubavitch disciple. When my fiancée and I announced our engagement, he suggested, “Perhaps send a wedding invitation to the Rebbe?” I understood that traditionally the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of saintly memory, did not attend weddings, but the Rebbe would often invite the young couple to see him and receive a blessing.

I mailed the invitation and soon received a call from the Rebbe’s secretariat, who said that the Rebbe would like to invite me and my fiancée to a private audience. The meeting was set for 1:00am several weeks later.

Work With the Living

The Rebbe said was, “It is enough that you were working with the dead, now you need to work with the living!” We entered the Rebbe’s study with no agenda and no requests. We simply wanted his good wishes and blessing for our marriage. The Rebbe spoke in the Yiddish language and I translated the conversation for my wife, who only spoke Hebrew. The first thing the Rebbe said was, “Moshe [my Hebrew name], I haven’t seen you for a long time! You’ve disappeared. It is enough that you were working with the dead, now you need to work with the living!”

I was not in the funeral business, I was not an undertaker. I didn’t work with the living and I didn’t work with the dead, so I replied, “Rebbe, I don’t understand.”

But the Rebbe repeated, “Enough working with the dead, now you need to work with the living.”

I answered, “Excuse me but I do not understand the entire reference. I do not work with the dead or with the living.”

Japan Needs A Rabbi!

Rabbi Marvin Tokayer (Photo: Lubavitch Archives)
Rabbi Marvin Tokayer (Photo: Lubavitch Archives)
The Rebbe explained that he had read an article in the newspaper about my finding a Jewish cemetery in Nagasaki, Japan, when I was the chaplain there. “Why are you wasting your time looking for cemeteries? There are living people in Japan. Japan is a growing country and they need a rabbi.”

The Rebbe continued, “No community should be abandoned. We cannot abandon any ship. The captain needs to be the last to abandon the ship. There are Jews everywhere and there is a nice Jewish community in Japan, you should go to Japan and be the rabbi of the Jewish community there.”

I was completely taken by surprise. I looked at my fiancée and translated, “The Rebbe suggests we travel to Japan so I can become the rabbi of the Jewish community.”

She said something similar to, “It may be closer to go to the moon!” She had no idea where Japan was and neither of us spoke Japanese. We had no idea why the Rebbe was suggesting that we move there.

She said she was not interested and I relayed the answer to the Rebbe, “Thank you, but I do not think we are interested in going to Japan.”

Nevertheless, no matter how I steered the conversation, throughout the rest of our audience the Rebbe kept coming back to his request. “It will be wonderful for the community, it will be good for you and you will learn so much,” he said. “You do not have children yet so you are not bound to a place with Jewish schools. You are not even married yet! Go to Japan, stay there as long as you want, and be of service to the Jewish people. You speak English, Hebrew and Yiddish. You have a college education. I think you should go there.”

The Rebbe also said, “When I send someone to be my emissary, it’s a one way ticket, they don’t come back. But you, you do not have to stay there forever.” The Rebbe also said, “When I send someone to be my emissary, it’s a one way ticket, they don’t come back. But you, you do not have to stay there forever.”

Despite the Rebbe’s pleas, at the end we said, “Thanks, but no thanks.” We weren’t interested in going and that was that. The Rebbe stood to give us a blessing for the wedding. He wished us well and added a blessing for peace in Israel. He told me to tell my fiancée’s family in Israel that everyone will be well and, if there will be war, Israel will be victorious.

With that we concluded our private audience with the Rebbe and traveled home.

My fiancée and I were both surprised by the conversation but we soon put it out of our minds.

Japan Again?

Soon thereafter I received a phone call from the president of the Jewish community of Japan. He called from the airport in New York between flights and asked if it would be possible for me to rush to the airport and have a cup of coffee with him. I did not know him and had never even heard of him, but out of curiosity I went to the airport to meet him.

Once there, he asked me to come to Japan to be their rabbi. I looked at him and said, “I have heard this before. We are not interested in this offer.”

He responded, “I will be back in New York again, can I call you then?”

I told him he may, and indeed he did phone me when he was next in New York, and I again told him that we were not interested.

He called a third time. At this point my wife and I had discussed the idea further and agreed to go for two years. We thought it would be exciting to go away on our own as a newly married couple and have the opportunity to visit Singapore, Korea, Bangkok, Hong Kong and China. We thought we would have an interesting adventure and then return to the United States.

Tragedy Amidst Preparations

While we were busy packing and finding out about the Japanese Jewish community, my father unexpectedly passed away.

When we were sitting shiva my mother and I were astonished that the Rebbe sent us a condolence letter and sent someone to console us in person. How the Rebbe found about my father’s passing, I don’t know, but it was very meaningful to my mother and me.

I was still in the 30 days of mourning, the house was completely packed up and we would be leaving very soon. I called the Rebbe’s office to ask if I could schedule a private audience and was given an appointment immediately.

The first thing I did was thank the Rebbe for sending a visitor to console my mother and me after my father’s passing. I told the Rebbe that we found his letter very comforting and reassuring and were touched that he had sent it.

Then we discussed my impending move. The Rebbe suggested, “You are going to Japan to be the rabbi, but you are very young. It may be wise to grow a beard.”

I thought it was interesting that the Rebbe said that, as the Japanese Jews at the time were primarily from Siberia, and if they would see a young fellow come off the airplane, they would ask, “Where is your father?” I listened to the Rebbe and grew a long beard which I kept the entire time I lived in Japan.

The Rebbe also asked, “What will happen if you are faced with a serious question of Jewish law? How will you answer it?”

I explained that with telephones one can receive immediate answers from the leading authorities on Jewish law.

He asked, “Whom will you call?

I said, “Whom would you suggest?”

The Rebbe told me I should call him or Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, a leading authority in Jewish law in the past generation. I told the Rebbe I thought it would be better to call Rabbi Feinstein as the Rebbe had enough to deal with. The Rebbe gave me Rabbi Feinstein’s number and introduced me to him, which I appreciated very much. Although the nature of most questions I was asked were not that serious, I kept in contact with Rabbi Feinstein, knowing that if a major question arose, I had someone to turn to.

The Rebbe wanted to make sure that my paperwork and degrees were okay before I left. As I would be the only rabbi in Japan, the Rebbe wanted to be certain I would not be challenged or questioned. And in fact I was not challenged during our stay in Japan, and was accepted as the rabbi of the Jewish community.

The Japanese Experience

I served as the rabbi for two years and found it to be so fascinating, unusual and exotic that my wife and I we decided it was not time to come home, there was still much to do.

We stayed for 20 years! Those were the best years of my life. I learned so much about myself - as a human being, as an American and as a Jew. I was the outreach point for everyone in the Far East, and most of the time the only rabbi in the Far East. If anyone in China or India was interested in Jews, Judaism or the Bible, I was the only telephone number to call. I knew every day there would be a phone call. I never knew who or what it would be, just that it would be a surprise and an interesting experience.

The Far East Today

I arrived in Tokyo in 1968, more than 40 years ago. Asia has certainly changed. The future of today’s world is China, Japan and India. My community in Tokyo was comprised of third generation Russian Jews. They are no longer there. Now the majority of the community members are American and Israeli expatriates. The day they come, they know the day they will depart.

Today in the Far East when you travel outside the big cities, the only Jewish presence is Chabad. I have been to China 25 times, and I know about China very well. I have been to India 20 times. There are Chabad rabbis all over the place.

My Impressions of the Rebbe

In my meetings with the Rebbe I was overwhelmed and felt like I was in the presence of a spiritual giant. He was a giant in his mental abilities. He was a giant in his learning. He was a giant in his scope of knowledge. The Rebbe was familiar with everything and concerned about everyone. He was in a class of his own.

Frequently a movement is judged after the passing of its leader. Frequently the movement fails because the charismatic leader is no longer there. With Chabad, the energy created by this charismatic leader has maintained itself. The dedication and devotion has maintained itself. There is still a great deal of energy and enthusiasm. The Rebbe’s legacy lives on.

From an interview with Dovid Zaklikowski.

Rabbi Marvin Tokayer is a noted scholar and historian residing in Great Neck, New York. For many years he was the only rabbi living in Japan and served as the Vice President and Director of Culture, Religion and Education for the Jewish Communities of the Far East. Rabbi Tokayer has written 20 books in Japanese on Judaism and Jewish life, and upon returning to New York he founded and led the Cherry Lane Minyan.
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Shalum Ben Ruvan holmdel April 18, 2013

Very inspiring. I found this interview revealing of the natural daas of the Rebbi. His erudition showed connectivity that went behind basic human empathic wisdom. He really was his Yiddishkeit Lantsman and the Lantsman him. Reply

Joel Clearwater, fl May 5, 2011

Excellent; never knew that (at any time) there were Jews in Japan. (Now, i am aware that there are the American, israeli and other travelers; but in the1960-1980's or so, never knew that there were jews there. Reply

Paul Akinjo Oakland, ca/usa May 5, 2011

The Living Assignment Thank you for this great story. It opens my mind to look back at Joshua. How he must have wrestled with the idea of leading G-ds' people. Fear, Anxiety, Uncertainty and Weakness enveloped Joshua. But G-d assured him and encauraged him to assume the leadership role after Moses His servant died. A two year mission turned into a Twenty year of G-D's " Living Miracles " May G-D's name be Praised. As for the Rebbe of Blessed Memory, what is there to say.? Reply

izzy k May 5, 2011

Wow! Absolutely amazing! fascinating! Reply

Anonymous Flushing, ny May 5, 2011

I am not an observant Jew yet I never miss the articles from Chabad-The Rebbe.org. I also enjoy the articles about women's issues. Reply

shmelke May 5, 2011

wow It's amazing that there are still Jews in Japan, and they still get help. Reply

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