Jewish Community of Japan

Rabbi David Kunin knows exactly where to get the best challah in all of Japan, and it is not for lack of competition. That is because the Jewish Community Center of Tokyo has had the same baker for over 40 years. While there are two Chabad centers in Tokyo and a congregation in Kobe as well, at age 85 JCC’s native Japanese baker has become an expert on Ashkenazi Jewish cooking over the course of her long career and makes not only the best challah in Japan, but some killer hamentaschen and Matzah balls as well.

The Jewish Community Center of Tokyo is the only Masorti synagogue in Japan. Founded in 1955, the synagogue caters primarily to the expat community in Japan. While there have been Jewish communities in Yokohama and Nagasaki dating back to the 19th century, and later on a community in Kobe, the majority of the Jews living in Japan since WWII have been expats working in Tokyo on temporary contracts.

Japan’s expat community is becoming more permanent. Ten or fifteen years ago, the majority of the congregation was on 3-5 year contracts, but these days most are here longer term and many are married to Japanese spouses. The congregation on a whole is rather young—most members are in the 35-50 age range and Rabbi Kunin estimates that about two-thirds of the Hebrew school students have one Japanese parent. Students in the Hebrew school speak English, Japanese, Hebrew and French as first languages, making it one of the most diverse Hebrew schools in the world.

With regard to Jewish practice in Japan, Rabbi Kunin admits that keeping kosher in Japan can be quite a challenge. “Almost nothing here is really vegetarian, and even if a menu says vegetarian, that just means it contains vegetables and there probably is still meat in it. Ramen, for example, is always made in pork broth”. The synagogue kitchen is very strict, and allows only meat and parve products—no dairy—and only goods with kashrut certification are allowed in the kitchen. In an effort to provide kosher meat to the community, the JCC has paired up with one of the Chabad houses to import kosher chicken, though finding kosher beef in Japan is a rarity. Still, the international supermarkets in Tokyo carry a wide array of kosher certified products and Tokyo also has its fair share of vegan restaurants. In addition, Sushi is readily available and the congregation provides a list of kosher fish in Japanese.

Rabbi Kunin, a member of the RA, arrived in Tokyo from Edmonton, Alberta. Tired of the harsh Canadian winters, he and his wife wanted to live in a big city in a warm location. Scanning the RA bulletin, he saw the Tokyo job advertised and thought it would be an interesting change of pace for the later part of his rabbinical career. He loves Tokyo and is learning Japanese slowly but surely. He can already perform most day-to-day tasks in Japanese and aims to be conversational by the end of his term in Tokyo.

He does feel a bit isolated in the sense that he is very much in the expat community and most native Japanese people do not understand Western religion, much less Judaism, which comprises only about 1,000 followers in a country of over 125 million. The synagogue sometimes hosts Japanese guests and he sometimes meets with Buddhist priests, but interfaith work is a much smaller part of his work here than it was in Canada.

The community is a wonderful place to visit and is extremely warm and hospitable. Guests are welcomed, though it is advised to contact the synagogue beforehand to arrange a visit. To read more about the Jewish Community of Japan, visit their website at http://www.jccjapan.or.jp .