Torah Study in Japan

by R. Wineberg - KOBE, JAPAN

July 15, 2003

In most respects, it’s a Torah study class much like any other. Like in thousands of Chabad centers around the world, the class starts up with a few minutes of casual conversation and then the group settles down for some serious study of the week’s Torah portion.

But for Motti, Eyal, Yaniv and Yarden, who meet every Monday night with Rabbi Gaon Yosef Maatuf of Chabad of Kobe, Japan, there’s one crucial difference. The hour is one a.m., and the six men are each at their own personal computers in their own homes, scattered throughout Japan’s southern provinces and linked together by video-cam. It’s an unconventional setup, Maatuf admits, but it works. Despite the distance between them, the group engages in a long, lively discussion in Hebrew, finally signing off close to 2:30 am.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that Japan, a world leader in hi-tech, should play host to a cyber-linked class, a phenomenon only made possible by recent advances in technology where participants enter a sort of virtual classroom in which they can see and hear each other. But while the technical end of it works, “a Torah class in these parts was not an easy thing to find until recently,” Rabbi Maatuf observes. Maatuf, a native of Israel, moved to Kobe three years ago with his wife Shterni and their family and started the cyber-linked class last year. It’s one of many initiatives taken by the couple in an effort to provide activities and services for the Jews of Kobe and the surrounding areas.

Approximately 400 Jews live in the Kansai state in Southern Japan; most of them are in Kobe, Kansai’s biggest and most modern city. And among the foreigners living in Japan’s southernmost islands, Shikoko and Kiyushu, Maatuf says he knows at least 50 who are Jewish. Most, he says, are involved in Japan’s largest industries, pearls and hi-tech; many others are faculty or students at local universities. A large percentage are Israeli born, and many live in Japan only temporarily—typically two to three years, and at most, ten.

It’s a diverse community and meeting its spiritual and material needs is a challenge not for the fainthearted. But Maatuf, who serves as Rabbi of the Ohel Shelomo Synagogue, founded back in the 1930’s, when Kobe boasted a sizeable Jewish presence, says the city has come a long way.

“There were Jewish families in Kobe who were about to leave for lack of a Jewish infrastructure,” he says. But with kosher provisions now being shipped in monthly from the US and Europe, a recently renovated mikvah, Shabbat services at Ohel Shelomo with a congregation of more than 50, a Jewish preschool in the works for this September, holiday programs for the community, and ongoing Torah classes- cyber and otherwise, many of them are re-thinking that decision. In fact, Maatuf points to several families with young children who have recently made the move from Japan’s southern regions to Kobe to join the flourishing Jewish community.

“Over the last few decades, Kobe’s Jewish community was active and close-knit, but not getting any larger,” Shterni Maatuf says. Several large foreign companies had closed their doors with rise of the yen in the 1980’s, taking with them many Jewish workers. The devastating earthquake of January 1995 caused even more to leave. But if recent events are any indication—over 300 joined the Maatuf’s for a Pesach seder last May, and 250 participated in a three day seminar over Shavuot in June—Jews from across Japan’s southern regions are looking to Kobe for Jewish life. “Jewish awareness has reached an all-time high here,” she notes. “There’s unquestionably a very strong Jewish future for this city.”

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