March 29, 2024

A Mission to Japan, Both Personal and Communal

Sylvia Cohn GMW Community Member

I jumped at the chance to travel with Federation to Japan. Knowing how fabulous Federation missions are from having chaired and participated in missions to Israel, Morocco, Spain, and Italy, the opportunity to experience Japan’s Jewish community was draw enough. I was also lucky that this communal experience enabled me to take a very personal journey halfway around the world.  

A Personal Experience 

My mother lived in Nayoga 100 years ago. During this mission, I was fortunate to bear witness to our family’s unique legacy that impacts the entire nation to this day.  

On her 16th birthday, my mother Eva Michaelis Jacoby arrived in Japan from Berlin with her father, mother, and older sister. Her father, Leonor Michaelis, was a renowned physician and researcher at the University of Berlin. Antisemitism was a significant challenge throughout his career, and he was unable to receive funding for his own research in Germany.  

He was recruited by the University of Nagoya to start their biochemistry department and medical school, becoming one of the first foreign professors at a Japanese university. For the three years they lived in Nagoya, my mother’s family led a very exciting life, spending time with Japanese royalty and befriending the family of violinist Shinichi Suzuki, who pioneered the famous Suzuki Method of teaching music. 

One century later, my visit to Nagoya, a major port and industrial city of 2 million, home to Toyota Motors, was a whirlwind! I was treated like a celebrity, greeted every 30 minutes by the university chancellor, president, deans and other executive, academic, and intellectual leaders who extolled my grandfather’s contributions to the early days of their now enormous and prestigious institution.  

It was truly meaningful to experience for myself so many of the stories my mother had written about in her memoirs. Then, after an extraordinary stay in Nagoya, I took the Bullet train to Kyoto and shifted to an equally fascinating part of my trip – engaging with today’s Jewish community of Japan. 

A Communal Experience 

Meeting up with our Federation’s group, I was home again. The Federation team, led by Mission Chairs Deborah and Wayne Zuckerman and Chief Development Officer Rebecca Pollack, curated every moment of the King David Society* Mission to Japan to be compelling and impeccably well-organized. The ‘wheels up’ schedule had us going nonstop from early morning until late night, taking in the breathtaking Japanese culture. As Debbie Zuckerman said, “This was an incredible opportunity to travel with like-minded people who share the same core values. With Federation, we experienced things we would never be able to otherwise.” 

Federation shows us Jewish communities in places we didn’t expect them. Jewish life in Japan couldn’t be more different from ours in Greater MetroWest. Though the Jewish community is not very large, it is extremely interesting and international, comprised primarily of westerners who married Japanese citizens. A statistic was shared that 40 percent of the population of approximately 2,500 Jews in Japan are Israelis, many of whom visited as young adults following their IDF service and decided to settle there.  

We spent several days in Kyoto where we met a community of Sephardic Jews and Israelis actively seeking success in the high-tech and business arenas, saw charming sites, and took a day trip to Hiroshima where we saw the rose named after Anne Frank in the Peace Memorial Park.

We then took the Bullet train to Tokyo where we had lunch at the home of Gilad Cohen, Israeli’s ambassador to Japan, and were joined by Israeli women’s rights activist Ayelet Razin Bet Or. We had a very interesting conversation and expressed our solidarity with the Jewish State. Later that day, we enjoyed a lively Shabbat dinner at Chabad House in Tokyo, in a jam-packed basement filled with travelers from around the globe, and heard a performance-style welcome unlike any other I’ve experienced. 

A Sunday visit to the Tokyo JCJ (Jewish Community of Japan) felt more familiar to me. The beautiful modern synagogue was bustling with religious school and bar mitzvah classes taught by their Long Island-born rabbi. PJ Library books for young families were displayed proudly on a table, just like in New Jersey!  

A Peoplehood Experience 

Antisemitism and the persecution of Jews is what drew my mother’s family to Japan. Although the Jews of Tokyo told us that they don’t experience antisemitism, of course they are well aware of and understand what is happening worldwide. 

My biggest takeaway from this epic journey is that Jews around the world are all connected, and that these connections are as real in Japan as anywhere else. For centuries, no matter who they are, where they come from, or how they practice, Jews find each other and create familiarity and continuity.  

I encourage everyone to try to experience an only-by-Federation travel opportunity to other Jewish communities like Montreal, Cuba, and of course our beloved Israel, during an upcoming mission. Missions remind us we are not just one local or American Jewish community. We are all part of the world’s Jewish community, which we must all help sustain.  

 *The mission welcomed households or individuals making a minimum gift of $25,000 to the 2024 UJA Annual Campaign