It’s Friday night in Tokyo, Japan. One after the other, the lights go out in the villas of this exclusive neighborhood. Only one light remains on after midnight. In the large dining room decorated in the finest Japanese tradition, about twenty people sit at the Shabbos table. The meal has ended, but nobody is in a hurry to leave. The people listen closely to the engrossing class given by Rabbi Binyamin Edery, the director of the Chabad House, and the women are fascinated by his wife Efrat’s class.
Dovid, a lawyer, sits there too. He listens to Rabbi Edery tell how the Rebbe MH"M listens to the whispering of the heart of every Jew, and he recalls his first encounter with the Rebbe’s emissaries to Japan.
It was half a year before, also a Friday night. He finished work at the office late at night and instead of returning home, he felt an urge to walk about the city. He wandered about for a quarter of an hour with no particular destination, until he came to the train station. He had stopped near a bank when he suddenly noticed, a few feet away, a peculiar looking couple, dressed very strangely for Japan. Their odd manner of dress reminded him of his youth, and he instinctively called out, "Shabbat Shalom!"
Binyamin and Efrat turned around and when they identified the source of the unusual greeting for that part of the globe, they greeted Dovid warmly.
Dovid’s excitement at the encounter brought back memories of his youth in a traditional family in the United States. He told Rabbi Edery that it had been years since he encountered a religious Jew on the streets of Tokyo, certainly not a Chassid dressed in a sirtuk and wearing a hat. They spoke for a while until it began raining. Rabbi Edery invited him to their hotel room, where they were living for the first few months after their arrival in Japan. But the hour was late and Dovid hurried home, though not before giving Rabbi Edery his business card.
Rabbi Edery couldn’t carry it, so he had to hide it under a bush near the bank, hoping that the rain wouldn’t ruin it. On Motzaei Shabbos Rabbi Edery went back to the bank, checked under the bush and found the card, damp but legible. The e-mail address was entered into the Chabad House computer, and each week Dovid received an e-mail, like hundreds of other Jews throughout Japan who receive weekly messages from the Chabad House.
Eight months ago, when the Chabad House moved to its new location in the spacious villa in the exclusive San-Nu neighborhood, Rabbi Edery and his wife decided to invite twenty guests for the Friday night meal. Until then they had been unable to invite guests, due to the small size of their apartment. Among the guests was Dovid, who had received the invitation by e-mail, along with a detailed map of the area. At exactly 7:30 p.m., ten minutes before Shabbos, Dovid knocked at their door.
Rabbi Edery invited him into their spacious living room, which had become a shul. Dovid removed his shoes before entering and gaped in astonishment at the odd contrast between the Japanese decor and the aron kodesh covered with a velvet paroches, as well as the silver candlesticks on the Shabbos table.
Dovid will never forget that Shabbos. After twenty years of utter neglect of his Yiddishkeit, his Judaism was revealed anew. More guests poured in, and by the time Shabbos began, nearly thirty Jews had shown up for Mincha. Rabbi Edery gave a brief talk between Mincha and Kabbalas Shabbos regarding the expanded Chabad House, which would be able to host large numbers of Jews for Shabbos and other special occasions.
"The Chabad House is the house of every Jew, so feel at home," concluded Rabbi Edery. Dovid was so moved by this that he got up and asked permission to say a few words. "I must tell you, honored rabbi and all the guests, that this week I felt a strong longing for my parents’ home. I yearned for the warmth of Judaism, for the Friday nights around the Shabbos table. The memories came over me in waves, and then suddenly there was your invitation to come for Shabbos. I can honestly say: the Rebbe heard my heart’s desire and brought me back home."
* * *
Today, dozens of years after thousands of the Rebbe’s shluchim have gone to nearly every spot on the globe, it’s hard to find a country without a Chabad House – certainly not a developed country with hundreds of millions of people. Yet until a little over a year ago there was no permanent Chabad House in Japan. Perhaps it was the language, maybe the utter lack of connection to any Jewish environment for thousands of miles, or perhaps because it has a relatively small community of only a few hundred Jewish families. Maybe it was simply time for the Japanese to also be prepared for Moshiach.
Rabbi Edery’s story is reminiscent of the thrilling stories of the first shluchim, who went out to spiritual deserts and transformed them into blooming gardens, about which the Rebbe can happily say "Basi L’Gani." He too, like those shluchim of old, had to begin work contending with an extremely difficult environment for an observant Jew. Now he continues to take those first steps in establishing a flourishing Jewish community.
Rabbi Edery recently visited Beis Chayeinu, and we took the opportunity to interview the Rebbe’s shliach to Japan; to hear about the difficult beginnings, about the Rebbe’s miracles, about the ease with which people accept the besuras ha’Geula and happily join in preparing themselves and their surroundings to greet Moshiach.
* * *
Rabbi Edery is a charming young man who got married just a little over a year ago. After half a year of learning in the kollel of 770 in Kfar Chabad, he left the Chassidic atmosphere for Eastern Asia, in order to bring them the besuras ha’Geula.
Rabbi Edery first became acquainted with Eastern culture as a bachur when he was on shlichus in New Delhi, India. There, under the guidance of Rabbi Nachman Nachmanson, he learned the basics of shlichus and how to handle the problems that crop up which ordinarily Jews don’t have to contend with. That is also where he first got the idea of shlichus to Japan.
Rabbi Edery relates, "In recent years, Israeli tourists have come to accept the fact that wherever they travel they will encounter the Rebbe’s shluchim. Since Japan is also on the route of many tourists, they would ask us for the address of the Chabad House in Japan. When they heard there was no such thing, they were quite surprised and said: So open one! That’s when I first had the idea of checking out the possibility of opening a Chabad House in Japan one day.
"In Tishrei this past year, Rabbi Zimroni Tzik called me and suggested that we meet with a certain wealthy Jew who was married to a Japanese convert, who had come with his wife to visit his parents in Hertzeliya. We went to them and spoke with them about the possibility of Chabad branching out to Japan. His wife, who is very involved in Jewish life in Japan, maintained that Chabad would be welcomed by the local community. She and her husband expressed their hope that we would agree to come to Japan.
"After that meeting, my wife and I decided to go to Tokyo for Chanuka, to make a farbrengen and do special Chanuka projects, and in the meantime to check the place out and see whether we wanted to move there on a permanent basis.
"After we decided in principle, we wrote to the Rebbe the details of the plan and received a clear answer in the Igros Kodesh (Vol. 23, p. 302) – that since we were in the days of Chanuka, we had to increase in hafatzas ha’Torah and Chassidus until it reached the outside, and to do it all with chayus and light, increasing light.
"This answer gave us tremendous strength, and after we got the money together, which we figured would suffice for tickets for two and a one week’s stay, we left for Japan. In addition to writing down the names of a few Jewish families in Japan (which we got from Rabbi Gershon Shnur, the shliach in Ganei Tikva, who had arranged a Pesach seider in Tokyo in the past), we took a suitcase full of menoros and candles, and another suitcase full of food, including the ingredients for doughnuts.
"When we landed in Narita, Japan’s international airport, we met an Israeli couple who had just returned from the islands near Japan. We asked them where the Israeli tourists could be found, and they directed us to Shinshaku and Shibuya, Tokyo’s two business districts, where Israeli tourists operate booths selling various products to earn some money to support themselves.
"From the airport we went to a hotel where we unpacked our bags and got to work. That is when we first began to realize what financial problems awaited us. One night in a decent hotel costs nearly two hundred dollars! The next day, when we saw a price tag of 18 dollars on a bunch of grapes, it was clear to us that this shlichus was going to be extremely costly.
"We arranged a meeting with one of the activists in the local community to organize a farbrengen. Baruch Hashem, the meeting was very successful, and he expressed his joy at being able to help Chabad. Right after the meeting, he began making telephone calls inviting his friends to a Chanuka farbrengen.
"News of the unusual gathering got around and despite little advance notice, nearly fifty people showed up. By Japanese standards, this was a crowd you would be lucky to get for the High Holidays! During the farbrengen, after we spoke at length about the Rebbe’s besuras ha’Geula, many people resolved to increase their mitzva observance in order to prepare for Moshiach’s coming. At the end of the farbrengen we raffled a dollar from the Rebbe, which an Israeli boy named Sammy won. It just so happened that that day was his birthday!
"From the discussions we had that night and in the days that followed with many families in the community, we got a very dismal picture. Jewish life in Tokyo is run by the J.C.C., a Conservative-Reform organization. In a conversation we had with the conservative rabbi, he said he focused his energy on maintaining the status quo, and that he did not try to burden people with new demands. From this perspective he didn’t see a contradiction between the work of the J.C.C. and the work of Chabad in encouraging Yiddishkeit. ‘They are separate domains,’ he explained.
"We further learned that the J.C.C. had only 120 Jewish families as members, some of whom did not even attend the High Holiday services. Their sole connection to Judaism was expressed in paying their J.C.C. dues. We met many intermarried couples.
"The only kosher products in Japan are fruits and vegetables. Even fish is hard to get. Even though the Japanese love fish and there are many kosher fish, it’s hard to obtain a whole fish, and the kosher fish are saturated with blood of non-kosher fish and other sea creatures the Japanese like. When we asked the Jews whether we could get chalav Yisroel and pas Yisroel, they didn’t know what we were talking about.
"This dismal situation convinced us not to go back to Eretz Yisroel, but to remain in Japan in a way of l’chatchila aribber. We went into this shlichus with open eyes. It was clear to us that this shlichus would be very difficult, but when we saw the spiritual state of the community, we couldn’t allow ourselves to stand off to the side and delay the work for even one day. We wrote to the Rebbe about this and opened the Chabad House of Japan."
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When the Edery couple announced their intention to remain in Japan, the local Jews were thrilled and very impressed. They knew how difficult life in Japan was in general, and imagined how much harder it would be for a Chabad couple particular about mitzva observance. Some offered to help the young couple. One family, for example, offered to host them in their home for a month.
The first Jewish kindergarten in Tokyo opened right after Chanuka, directed by Efrat Edery. Some families removed their children from the non-Jewish kindergartens and placed them in the Chabad school. The little children managed to make a Jewish revolution in their homes when they began asking their parents to make a Shabbos table like they saw in school, including candles, Kiddush, etc. The parents, who up until then had not heard a word from their children about Yiddishkeit, suddenly heard their children relating the story of the parsha and singing Jewish songs.
Rabbi Edery developed a list of Jewish families living in Tokyo. He managed to locate over 300 families who were not listed as members of the Jewish community. Within a short time he let most of the Jews in Tokyo know that in Japan there is an address for all their Jewish needs.
In the early months, the Chabad House address was Rabbi Edery’s cell phone number. Finding a suitable apartment in Tokyo is almost harder than splitting the Yam Suf! This urgent problem is because Tokyo is one of the most crowded cities in the world, making it hard to find a large apartment to rent.
Rabbi Edery described the type of apartment he needed to the real estate agents – capable of hosting many activities, accommodating dozens of people for Shabbos; one with a large porch on which he could build a sukka. They said it was nearly impossible to find something like that in Tokyo, unless he was willing to part with tens of thousands of dollars each month...
For a few months, Rabbi Edery ran his activities from his motel room. Since he couldn’t hold classes where he lived in due to lack of space and no official permission, he had to hold the classes in the homes of mekuravim. When he needed to meet with a businessman or have a heart-to-heart talk with someone, he met them in the lobby of a Tokyo hotel.
It was during this difficult period that Rabbi Edery worked on his list of addresses. Before each holiday he sent creative holiday reminders to hundreds of Jewish families in Tokyo. For example, before Purim, hundreds of families received a cute envelope in the mail with hamantashen in it, along with a brochure explaining about Purim and its connection to the Geula. Before Pesach they received a beautiful brochure detailing the mitzvos of the Yom Tov that included a form to sell their chametz through the Chabad House. Before Pesach Sheini they found an envelope with a piece of matza in their mailbox, along with a brochure explaining the significance of Pesach Sheini.
In the meantime, Rabbi Edery managed to connect with the Israeli Consul, Coby Shoshani, and he became a regular guest at the Israeli Consulate. (It’s a small world. On his first visit to the consulate, one of the security agents identified him by name and told his buddy that Rabbi Edery could be allowed in. It turned out that he recognized Rabbi Edery from when the rabbi worked at the Chabad House at Kennedy airport.) Every Friday he met with embassy staff and gave each of them two challos for Shabbos which his wife had made.
One of the mekuravim who received these fresh challos each week asked Rabbi Edery which bakery sold them. He couldn’t believe it when Rabbi Edery told him that his wife baked all the challos in their motel room.
How did you overcome the kashrus difficulties?
At first it was really hard. We didn’t know what was permissible and what wasn’t. We subsisted almost entirely on the canned food we had brought with us from Eretz Yisroel. When that was used up, we had vegetables and fruit and lots of rice. One of our supporters donated a bread maker, and we had to find kosher flour. In other countries it’s not difficult to obtain flour, but in Japan even the flour is mixed with ingredients of dubious kashrus. Only after consulting with the O.K. Labs were we able to find flour with no halachic problems and we began baking kosher bread.
We also had a problem with fish. You can get all kinds of fish in Japan, but we couldn’t buy fish that had been cut with a knife that had been used to prepare non-kosher seafood. We went to big fish stores but couldn’t find what we were looking for. In the end we finally discovered a fish market and a fisherman who agreed to keep whole fish for us. So every Friday at 4:00 a.m. I go to the fish market and bring a kosher knife which the fisherman uses to cut our fish. That’s how we have fish for Shabbos.
Can’t you import kosher food?
The first time we tried to import large quantities of kosher food was before Pesach. As was reported in Beis Moshiach [issue 276], we brought six bachurim to help us arrange sedarim in Tokyo and Saitama. Since each passenger is entitled to bring two suitcases, we decided to take advantage of the opportunity and to bring large quantities of kosher food for Pesach. My in-laws, Yaakov and Esther Reich, bought a huge quantity of food and sent it with the bachurim.
Since we had no experience importing large quantities of food, we weren’t aware of the strict Japanese laws which basically reject all food products unless they come with special documentation signed by the Ministry of Health. When the bachurim passed through customs at the airport, the authorities confiscated most of the food they had brought. It was a miracle that they allowed them to bring in the packages of matzos (they told them it was a Japanese cracker) and that they didn’t even notice the packages of maror and nuts for the charoses.
After the intervention of the representative of the airline the boys had flown, the customs officials agreed to store the food in a freezer on condition that we got the special permits from the Ministry of Health. Due to technical problems the permits were delayed until after Lag B’Omer, and a week before Shavuos we received all the food items, which were in excellent condition.
Having learnt the import laws the hard way, we began importing large quantities of food with the help of my in-laws, who go all out when it comes to these shipments. Lately we’ve been importing a large quantity of kosher food products every two week – pasta, wine, oil, preserves, and spices. We even get meat with Lubavitch sh’chita and milk products under the supervision of the beis din of Crown Heights. Recently we began organizing an additional shipment from Australia of all the Osem products.
Now that importing food became routine, we could intensify Mivtza Kashrus. We began by offering kosher catering. We came to an agreement with a number of large Tokyo hotels that when a Jew asked for kosher food, they would refer him to us and we would provide the kosher food. There are also Jewish families who order all their Shabbos food, and now we can supply them with ready-made food for Shabbos, including the traditional foods.
Despite the enormous success importing kosher food, our goal is to produce kosher food locally, and we really hope that we will soon conclude negotiations that will enable us to provide kosher food here.
Which food items do you plan to produce in Japan?
We’ll start with kosher milk, since we cannot import fresh milk and because it’s relatively easy to kosher a dairy. One of the friends of the Chabad House, a Japanese gentile, has relatives who own a large dairy in Okeido in northern Japan, about a three-hour flight from Tokyo. They are interested in helping us out with kosher milk.
Last month I flew there twice to oversee the production. From there I was in touch with rabbanim who are experts in kashrus, and got detailed instructions from them as to how to kasher the dairy. Now we await the final approval and it looks like, b’ezras Hashem, we will have chalav Yisroel very shortly in Japan.
The next item is fresh baked goods. We are in the midst of negotiating with a Japanese gentile who built a bakery, which has not opened yet for technical reasons. In principle, he’s willing to rent the bakery to someone who’s willing to invest in it, and we are in touch with a number of potential investors who will agree to run the bakery and produce only kosher products.
* * *
Rabbi Edery’s work leapt forward after he succeeded in acquiring the spacious villa in one of Tokyo’s exclusive neighborhoods. After moving into the two-story villa, the first floor was dedicated to the Chabad House, including a shul and a giant dining room. His private quarters are on the second floor, in addition to rooms he can use for guests.
Rabbi Edery relates the amazing hashgacha pratis which led to obtaining the villa: "After Pesach, when I saw how difficult it was to get a decent apartment, I realized I had to act l’chatchila aribber, and that then the Rebbe would give us the brachos.
"I decided to visit the Jewish communities in the south of Japan. We went to Kobe for the Shabbos before Lag B’Omer. It was a wonderful Shabbos, in the course of which we farbrenged with the community, imparting to them the Rebbe’s besuras ha’Geula. As with every farbrengen we arrange in Japan, we emphasized that ‘action is the main thing,’ and at the end of the farbrengen each person took on an additional observance to prepare for Moshiach.
"The farbrengen began after Shacharis at the Shabbos meal and ended when Shabbos was over. This enabled the participants to write to the Rebbe right after Maariv. Many of them received very interesting answers. For example, to one of the members of the shul committee, who is a Kohen, the Rebbe responded in a letter written to the gabbai of a shul, in which he explains the special quality of Kohanim. And to a woman who is a convert and is known as a tremendously hospitable person, who asked for a bracha for shalom bayis and for strengthening of Torah and mitzva observance, the Rebbe answered in a letter dated Lag B’Omer. The letter, addressed to a woman, begins with a bracha for good news in everything she asked for in her letter. The Rebbe said that in the merit of the righteous deeds she does, Hashem should fulfill all the desires of her heart for good. At the end of the letter the Rebbe wrote that in connection to what she asked about Torah and mitzvos, the proper way is to go with strength, but step by step.
"The Rebbe’s answers generated great excitement and many people decided to connect to the Rebbe through increasing in one of the mivtzaim-mitzvos.
"The next evening, the eve of Lag B’Omer, we traveled to the Jewish community of Osaka. We had a farbrengen with about thirty people, with the theme of ‘learning the hidden Torah of the Rashbi,’ whose ideas are now incorporated into Chassidus.
"As I had figured would happen, after this trip, which was a real challenge, to say the least, the Rebbe paid us back measure for measure and sent us his blessing through the trip itself. In the course of the shlichus, which took a week, I got to know a large group of Japanese businessmen who were very excited about the new Chabad work being done, and expressed their willingness to help establish Chabad in Tokyo.
When we returned to Tokyo, we organized all these businessmen into a solid group, along with other supporters that I had gotten to know in Tokyo beforehand, led by Adam Gelman, one of the distinguished members of the Jewish community who has helped us tremendously. After forming this group, the serious financial situation that had dogged my steps in my search for a large apartment was resolved.
"We saw how the Rebbe directs everything. At the same time that we formulated the group of supporters, we organized a group of gentiles who expressed their willingness to help with all the red-tape. The group consists of lawyers, real estate agents, and experts in electronics and high tech – in short, a talented bunch of individuals who joined together to help the Chabad House.
"Within a short time, three members of this group who run a real estate office for apartments managed to find a huge villa located in an exclusive neighborhood of Tokyo at a relatively low price. When I heard the name of the neighborhood, San-No, which means "mountain of the king," I realized it was similar in meaning to the name of the Rebbe’s neighborhood, Crown Heights!
"We celebrated Shavuos in the new villa. The harchava (expansion) in gashmiyus brought a tremendous harchava in ruchniyus. Suddenly we could host dozens of guests for Shabbos and we could even provide places to sleep for those who didn’t live nearby.
"The owner of the villa came on Yom Tov to visit the new tenants and was happy to see our work. She told us that the house had been built before World War II in the style of old Japan, and out of all the houses that were burned during the war, this was the only one that wasn’t burned. All those years she thought the day would come that the house would be used for something special, and now she was very happy to see us organizing activities to bring peace and justice to the world.
"After acquiring such a large home, we decided to dedicate the living room as a shul. Shortly after Shavuos my father-in-law came with a seifer Torah, and we opened the first Chabad shul in Japan. Excitement ran high, and the mekuravim actually fought over who would bring the seifer Torah from the airport. Then we had a hachnasas seifer Torah with joy and dancing, including Hakafos and the saying of "Ata Horeisa." We turned an ordinary weekday into Simchas Torah!
"The number of classes has grown since our move into the large Chabad House. In the past we held classes in the homes of mekuravim, but this hindered our growth. Now we have a schedule of classes with a different topic offered every day. One of the classes is given by my wife on the topic of taharas ha’mishpacha, which is attended by many women who have begun observing this mitzva.
You mentioned your ties with Japanese gentiles. What is their connection with your work?
In our first weeks in Japan we noticed that Japan is ripe for the Seven Noachide Laws. 87% of Japanese are Buddhists. Since we are the Rebbe MH"M’s representatives in Japan, and the Rebbe told us to disseminate the Seven Noachide Laws among the nations of the world, we feel responsible to teach the belief in one G-d to the hundred million Japanese who don’t believe in G-d at all.
We tell the gentiles we work with that G-d told us to teach them the Seven Noachide Laws, and incredibly, they accept it. Since we began our work among the non-Jews, we have seen tremendous success, with dozens of them joining the weekly class on the Seven Noachide Laws. The new kits with the Sheva Mitzvos and the Rebbe’s mikva water sell very well here.
In Japan we see how the world is ready for Geula. When a Japanese gentile, who until today did not believe in any spiritual power other than limited powers of nature, begins to believe in the existence of one G-d, the Creator of the world and the One who runs the world, this is Yemos HaMoshiach!
These gentiles are helping us develop the work we do, and we see the beginning of the fulfillment of Yeshayahu’s prophecy: "And kings will be your servants and princesses will be your nursemaids."
A few months ago we were visited by the Chassidic philanthropist, Professor Shlomo Kalisch, whom I had gotten to know when I worked for Matteh Moshiach in Yeshivas Toras Emes in Yerushalayim. He helps the Chabad House a great deal, and while in Japan he met with some of the senior hi-tech manufacturers in Japan. He put together a special group who support the work of the Chabad House. When you see these people, who by today’s standard are like princes and kings, sitting together and discussing ways of expanding the Chabad House’s work, you can’t help but remember what the Rebbe said about our seeing the fulfillment of the Messianic prophecies in our day.
One of these gentiles gave me the keys to a car. When I asked him what that was about, he explained that a Toyota was parked in my yard, and that from now on this car (worth nearly $20,000) belonged to the Chabad House. "If I need the car in an emergency, I’m sure you’ll lend it to me," said the Japanese man, while promising to transfer ownership of the car to me officially in the near future.
Although I’ve almost become accustomed to the miracles that the Rebbe has been showering us with in Tokyo, I must say I never anticipated a donation like this. Whoever wanted to talk to me that day had to listen to a speech I gave about the role of non-Jews in Yemos HaMoshiach!
In the last class I gave on Sheva Mitzvos before leaving for this visit to New York, one of the gentiles who attended the class got up and took a picture of 770 out of his pocket and told his friends, "Rabbi Edery plans on constructing a building like this here in Japan in the Ginza district [the most exclusive area of Tokyo]. If we all help him, he will succeed!"
* * *
Rabbi Edery was expecting four Tmimim from 770 to join him in Japan to help him over the Yomim Tovim. "From past experience I’ve seen how even a small group of bachurim can make a huge difference within a very short time, both in bolstering Yiddishkeit among the Jews in general, and in helping the work of the Chabad House in particular. Just the sight of four Tmimim walking the streets of Tokyo with their Chassidic clothing awakens the Jewish spark and ignites it into a great flame.
"In addition, with the help of the Tmimim, we will add new classes, so that in addition to two classes every day, the Tmimim will be available to learn privately with those who are interested.
"Our goal, of course, is to prepare Japan to greet Moshiach, both the Jews and the non-Jews. That is our mission."