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Two disasters later, a Tokyo synagogue gets a new rabbi

Shortly after a tsunami devastated Japan in March 2011, Andrew Scheer gathered up food and supplies from where he lived on the Upper West Side and traveled there.

The March 11 2011 earthquake and tsunami pummeled northeastern Japan, particularly the region of Fukushima—where a nuclear reactor melted down. It spiraled into an unprecedented crisis. Japan’s Fire and Disaster Management Agency reported over 22,000 people dead or missing because of the disaster.

Scheer, back then a 24 year old New York University graduate, knew that the Jewish community of Japan had to be reeling from the disaster.

“I went to Gourmet Glatt and some kosher supermarkets; loaded up,” he said.“I was on the phone with each of the rabbis, the rebbetzins” of the few synagogues in Tokyo. “The holiday of Passover was coming up, so he asked them, “What do you need? I’m in America, I can get anything.”

The kosher stores he shopped at pitched in, donating groceries once he informed them of his mission. After landing in Japan, Scheer immediately went to the Jewish communities to donate the Kosher food. Mission accomplished, Scheer realized. Now what?

“And then it was weird because I was like, okay, I’m still here for three weeks. What do I do now?” Scheer said.

Scheer joined a rabbi and other Jewish volunteers on treks to Fukushima Prefecture, delivering food and supplies.

The memories of that harrowing time have stayed with Scheer as he embarks on his newest job. In March he returned to Tokyo to lead one of Japan’s few synagogues.

Japan has relatively few formal Jewish institutions. These include the Jewish Community of Japan (JCJ) synagogue in Tokyo; as well as Jewish life centers in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Takayama that are run by rabbis from the Chabad movement, a Hasidic sect heavily involved in Jewish outreach. (One of those rabbis, Binyomin Edery, was given the title of Chief Rabbi of Japan by the Japanese government in 2015.)

There is also a historic Jewish community with a synagogue in the city of Kobe, run in partnership with a Chabad emissary there, as well as a more informal community of Jewish families stationed on American military bases in Japan.

Scheer’s JCJ synagogue is located in the upscale residential district of Hiroo in central Tokyo. Its façade is decorated with interlinked triangles and hexagons that form a repeating pattern of six-pointed Stars of David. Below the mosaic of stars there’s a bronze sign with another Jewish star, and—in English, Hebrew, and Japanese—the words “Jewish Community of Japan.”

Today, the JCJ holds egalitarian Shabbat prayer services—where men and women can sit together—as well as Shabbat meals and other programming. Its current building opened in 2009 at the same site that the congregation was founded upon in 1953, and features a Kosher kitchen, a ritual bath used for Jewish purification rituals, a Judaica library, and lecture spaces.

The congregation attending the JCJ has many expatriates. The Shul board’s former president, Philip Rosenfeld, said by phone that he estimates that the membership’s expatriate demographics are around 85% American, 10% European, and 5% Israeli. Many members have a Japanese spouse, some of whom have converted to Judaism. The community became more of a mix of foreigners and Japanese nationals particularly after the devastation of 2011, and the subsequent mass exodus of expatriates from Japan.

Tomoko Rosenfeld, Philip’s spouse, is a Japanese convert to Judaism.

“There are many mixed-marriage couples,” she told me. She currently runs the Jewish Japanese Women’s group at the JCJ and said that her work includes outreach out to Japanese wives and partners for events, classes and charity activities.

Did converting to Judaism change how she is viewed with Japanese society? “Nothing changed in my position in Japanese society at all,” she said. “It changed me a lot in a very good way, though. My perspective towards the world has been expanded enormously.” But her friends from childhood, she added, “don’t even think about anything regarding my conversion.”

By necessity, the JCJ is a tight-knit community. “If you live in the United States, if you live in New York, live in Chicago, you walk outside your door, and you have a large, vibrant Jewish community. Anyone living in those cities, they have… the visible signs of Jewish life in the community,” Philip Rosenfeld said. Synagogues, Kosher restaurants, and Jewish schools abound. “In Japan, you walk outside your door,” and other than the Chabad centers and the JCJ, “there is no Jewish community.”

Scheer replaced Rabbi David Kunin, who was The JCJ’s spiritual leader from 2013 until July 2020 when he took a pulpit in Syracuse, New York.Scheer first encountered the JCJ after graduating from New York University with a bachelor’s degree in Jewish history in 2008. He came to Japan to teach English for a year.

He taught at a private pre-K in a rural town about two hours away from Tokyo. It wasn’t a given that people would know what he meant when he spoke about being Jewish.

“When I lived in the countryside, I had to teach my Japanese coworkers the Japanese word for ‘Jew,’” Scheer said. (That’s “ユダヤ人” — “yudayajin.”) “They weren’t familiar with the concept. And that’s not so crazy, right? There’s not so many of us.”

Scheer eventually returned stateside and graduated from the Yeshivat Chovevei Torah rabbinical school in 2015. He then spent time as a chaplain in the Army Reserves, and he also worked for three years as a clergy member in the Rikers Island jail in New York City. Scheer married his wife Avital Zipper, who he met on the then-novel Tinder, in 2017, a match that rated stories in the New York Times and the Forward. later worked as a chaplain for Veterans Affairs and New York City hospitals.

When he heard Kunin would be departing Tokyo, he jumped at the chance to return to a place he had already been a part of. Scheer interviewed remotely for the position, and returned to Japan as rabbi almost exactly a decade since Fukushima.

Scheer arrived during a strict pandemic quarantine and stayed in his apartment for two weeks. Yet the Shul still kept him pretty busy, he said in a Zoom interview. He was called every JCJ member and former member; he planned on calling the other clergy (of different faiths) in the area; he was also helping out with a Bat Mitzvah, working on Passover holiday plans, and teaching by Zoom in the Sunday school.

He didn’t exactly feel like he was back in Japan just yet, he said, but he did feel like part of the Jewish community there.

“My inbox would say that I’m a part of the community,” he laughed.“My WhatsApp would say that I’m part of the community. My Zoom history would say that I’m part of the community.”

The synagogue held its first in-person Sunday school on March 7— a sign of a community coming back to life. “Even just seeing the kids,” said Scheer, “that was very enlivening.”

Ed. Note: The initial version of this article erroneously listed a Tokyo dateline. As the reporting makes clear, it was carried out through Zoom and phone calls. The physical description of the JCJ’s location was mistakenly placed near Shibuya Crossing. It is a 25 minute walk away.

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