Wednesday, 15 November 2017

The Frum Traveller's Guide to Japan

Our experience was just one of many, and we do not claim that what we state here is the definitive experience of Judaism in Japan. However, we have tried to portray accurately what we found in order to give you an idea of what things will be like. We took a two-week holiday in Japan, spending most of the time in Tokyo and a few days in Kyoto during August.

Community

Japan’s Jewish community is small but varied, and comprises a wide range of traditions and observances. Options for religious Jews in Tokyo is limited to the two Chabad houses, as the JCC is not orthodox. Rav Mendy and Chana Sudakevich and Rav Binyamin and Efrat Edery each run Chabad houses, which although an hour’s walk from each other, function as two entirely separate communities.


It can be confusing to navigate the two Chabad houses’ websites and piece together what Jewish provision there is, especially when Rav Mendy’s Chabad house is the only one listed on chabad.org and claims to be the ‘official’ Chabad on his website, whereas Rav Binyamin has the title of ‘Chief Rabbi of Japan’. Therefore, I have listed below a summary of each Chabad house and what they provide:

Rav Mendy & Chana
  • Located in Minato near Sensakuji station.
  • Listed on chabad.org and claims to be the official Chabad.
  • As well as a shul, there is a mikveh on site and the ‘Chana’s Place’ restaurant open between 17.00-21.30 on weeknights.

Rav Binyamin & Efrat
  • Located in Omori, around 10 minutes’ walk from Omori station.
  • Openly messianic on the website and in the house (e.g. saying ‘Yechi’ after tefilla)
  • They set up a second branch in Kyoto, which they are serving simultaneously, and currently are looking for shlichim to take it on full time.
  • Used to run ‘King Falaffel’ website which has now closed down.
  • Run the ‘Kosher Japan’ hechsher, which you can find on two brands of Sake and other items.

There is also a Sephardi synagogue in the city of Kobe, which is a 30-minute train ride from Kyoto. This community goes back many years and is the only regular functioning Orthodox community aside from Chabad. There is an apartment in the shul complex which you can stay in for a fee over Shabbat, and the Rabbi can arrange Shabbat hospitality. We considered going there for Shabbat, however we found the cost of travel to and from Tokyo to be very high and felt that as tourists Kobe did not justify a visit compared to other places.

Based on recommendations, we decided to spend both of our Shabbatot with Rav Binyamin and Efrat, one in Kyoto and one in Tokyo. While the messianism was uncomfortable, everything else about our experience was the exact opposite. We found a warm and hospitable family that create a wonderful Shabbat atmosphere and it was a real experience for tourists – and included great food. They aim to create a real connection with guests, and are very well liked by locals including non-Jewish visitors. We did not spend Shabbat with Rav Mendy and Chana, partly as they were away during our visit (and we have heard that they are often are away during Av), and their Chabad house was staffed by yeshiva bochurim in their absence.

Shabbat Accommodation in Tokyo

We stayed at the Omori Tokyu REI Hotel, which is one of Rav Binyamin’s list of recommended hotels (see their website). Apart from being a great hotel in general, including the advantage of being located in the Omori station complex which gave great accessibility to Tokyo, it was a very good place to be for Shabbat. We found the staff to be helpful, though with limited English and little familiarity with religious Jewish guests. However we didn’t need their help as keeping Shabbat is relatively straightforward there. The keys are all cylinder, and there is no electric key card entry. You can control all lights apart from the one closest to the door which turns on automatically upon entry (there is a way of solving this halachic problem). The highest floor is the 8th floor, which is relatively low for many hotels (we recommend asking for a 7th floor room as the lower ones are smoking rooms – and reception is on the 3rd floor). The toilet has an automatic heater, which you cannot turn off, however there are halachic solutions to this problem.

With regard to entering and exiting the hotel, this can be an issue. There are two entrances, one on the 3rd Floor by reception which adjoins the station and one on the 1st Floor through a coffee shop to the street. There are stairs to both of these floors however you must wait for someone to trigger the automatic doors in order to enter/exit. On the 3rd floor there are two sets of automatic doors before you get to the station, at which point you can walk to the street. On the 1st floor the door to the coffee shop is automatic, however there is a regular door that is sometimes in use if it is not blocked in. We also needed to check out on Shabbat, which was not a problem as you pay on arrival and we gave a suitcase of muktzeh items for them to look after from Friday, which they were happy to do.

Shabbat in Kyoto

We decided to stay at the Chabad house for Shabbat as there are a couple of guest rooms, so we are unable to recommend local hotels. There were around 50 people for Friday night and 30 on Shabbat lunch, comprising mainly of tourists plus a few locals who made the effort to attend Chabad Kyoto’s 1st Anniversary Shabbat, with which our visit coincided. The food was excellent, there were minyanim throughout Shabbat (partly due to the Shabbaton) and there was a great vibe, perfect for tourists who want an exotic and traditional Shabbat experience, and the ability to meet other people too.

The Chabad house is easy to find (the website has good directions to get there from Kyoto Central Station) and is located in a beautiful area of Kyoto (where isn’t?!). Examples of Shabbat-friendly activities in the area include: walking the ‘Philosopher’s Walk’ by the side of a canal, known as one of the most popular activities in the city; walking to the hub of museums and shrines to see the outdoor market and other cultural activities; seeing an interesting cemetery including a grave in the shape of a tortoise!

Shabbat in Tokyo

Our second Shabbat was spent with Rav Binyamin, and once again we ate all meals at Chabad. There were no minyanim on this particular Shabbat and a small group of tourists, however we got the impression that this was a quiet week. There is not a great deal to do in Omori other than see the architecture of the neighbourhood (there is a small museum and gardens near Chabad however they aren’t tourist sites).

Food

As there are very limited kosher products in Japan we brought our own food from Israel, bought a cheap rice cooker and made our own meals. Rice from the supermarket is kosher and you can find the Kosher Japan hechsher on two brands of Sake (Dassai is the most common). There is one brand of sake that we found a KLBD hechsher on.

We went to Chana’s Place for dinner one night, which had nice food although it is more of a kitchen and a few tables than a fashionable restaurant. The menu resembles an Israeli meat restaurant (albeit with a smaller menu) and we felt the Japanese food options to be very expensive. My meal was nice, and the quantity of food was good.

One of the most popular attractions in Tokyo is the Tsukiji Fish Market. We managed to find a seller in the outside market who only sells tuna, and we bought some sashimi (raw tuna), which was delicious. Most of the stalls sell kosher fish as well as sea food.

In the Hakone area, a popular tourist site with views of Mount Fuji, the area of Owakudani is well known for its unique black eggs. These are regular eggs that have blackened shells due to the volcanic gases in the area, and are a big tourist draw. Although not conclusive, it seemed that there is bishul akum involved in the making of these eggs and therefore we did not eat any.

Overall, it is certainly possible to have a successful holiday in Japan while keeping Shabbat and Kosher - and you'll have some Jewish experiences you won't be able to have anywhere else in the world!

The Frum Traveller’s Guide to Seoul, South Korea

Our experience was just one of many, and we do not claim that what we state here is the definitive experience of Judaism in Seoul. However, we have tried to portray accurately what we found in order to give you an idea of what things will be like. We spent four days in Seoul, from a Friday to a Tuesday in August 2017, en route to Japan.

Community

Seoul’s Jewish community consists of a small number of Anglo ex-pats and a fluctuating number of US military servicemen. Chabad’s centre in the Itaewon area of Seoul is the only functioning Jewish community centre and is where we chose to spend Shabbat.

Shabbat Accommodation

The Chabad website has a list of hotels and guest houses which are situated close by and have some familiarity with guests who keep Shabbat. We recommend choosing one of these, as the knowledge and understanding of the needs of a religious Jew are almost non-existent in Korea, and there are many obstacles one would have to overcome to successfully keep Shabbat in some places. For example, when we considered booking a hotel not on this list, we discovered that not only was entry to the rooms via electronic card, but also leaving the room required an electronic keypad. Some hotels do not have stairs and require use of the lift, and you cannot rely on the staff’s level of English to be able to deal with situations.

We decided to stay at the IP Boutique Hotel, which is Chabad’s recommended hotel. If you book directly with the hotel (we simply emailed them through the website and confirmed everything this way) and explain you are staying at Chabad you can receive a discount. You should also request a room on a low floor (they may offer this anyway). The staff at the IP Boutique are extremely helpful, speak good English and understand the needs of those who keep Shabbat. Every time you enter the hotel on Shabbat, a member of staff will offer to escort you to your room and open the door via the electronic card (there is no regular key option).

You can enter the hotel main gate via a regular door, and there are stairs. In the room itself the light immediately as you enter will turn on automatically (all the others can be pre-set before Shabbat) and the toilet heater comes on automatically when you sit on it. Both of these issues do have halachic solutions.

The hotel is under 5 minutes’ walk from Chabad however it is very hard to find your way, partly because locals are unfamiliar with the Chabad house and partly because Google Maps does not offer walking directions in Korea. After getting lost on Friday afternoon and only finding the way due to bumping into another lost group of Jews, we have written the following instructions:

1. Turn left out of hotel
2. Very soon you will see a shop called ‘Friendly Fish Fun’ on the same side of the road as the hotel. It is on a corner with a side-road, which you should turn left onto.
3. Take the first right turn.
4. Take the first left turn, where you will see a restaurant called ‘New York Burger Place’ on the corner.
5. When you see a flag attached to a pole with ‘Chabad of Korea’ turn right and the house is on the left (there is a chanukiah above the gate).

In our view the hotel was not cheap however we felt that it was worth paying more and having an enjoyable Shabbat in a nice place than having the worry and concern of staying somewhere where a day of our holiday could be ruined, or compromised.

Meals & Minyanim: The Shabbat Experience

Having emailed the Rabbi to request to eat both Shabbat meals with them, we arrived on Friday night and made our way downstairs to the small shul. There was no minyan (though we were close, and sometimes they do have one), however we did not eat till late due to a lengthy shiur. Dinner itself was nice, and there were around 30 people including lots of young Israeli travellers.

The Shabbat morning service started at 10.00. There was a minyan (12 or 13 men), which finished at 13.30 due to there being a 15 minute discussion of each aliyah punctuating the leyening. After this there was a Kiddush, a break for Mincha and then lunch, which finished at around 15.00. They do not provide a formal seuda shlishit, though they are open to facilitating this. At the end of Shabbat there was no minyan for Ma’ariv but the Rabbi made Havdala for those present (and people came for a while after to make their own Havdala).

Overall we found Rabbi & Rebbetzen Litzmann to be very hospitable and we enjoyed our Shabbat there, although we felt that the experience is more catered towards the local community than tourists.

Shabbat Afternoon

We wanted to use Shabbat to soak up the local atmosphere, rather than just spending it in home and shul, and this was very easy in Itaewon. The IP Boutique and Hamilton Hotels (another Chabad recommended hotel) are located on the main road in Itaewon, and serve as a good base to explore the area - simply walking around is an experience itself. As the area is home to the US military base, you are more likely to find people who can speak English and signs in English.

We decided to walk to the War Memorial of Korea, which is about 25 minutes’ walk from the IP Boutique. Given that finding your way through side streets is extremely hard, this walk is very easy as you just walk down the main road to get there, only needing to navigate one junction correctly. The museum is free and a fascinating window into the Korean War and how it affects South Korea today. The National Museum of Korea, also free of charge, is within walking distance however it takes around 35 minutes to get there from Chabad/the IP Boutique.

Food

Chabad have a small shop in a room of their house, which has a relatively large variety of products such as cheese, soups and sweets. We bought our own food to Korea and did not take up this option. We did find a few confectionery products with a hechsher around Seoul, such as Haagen Dazs ice cream and cookies from America. The chain ‘Paris Baguette’ stocks one brand of kosher cookie.

Overall, although Seoul may not be one of the most popular destinations for religious Jewish travellers, you can definitely make it work and benefit from the many rich cultural experiences in South Korea.

Friday, 18 December 2015

Post-Chanukah Depression

Is anyone suffering from post-Chanukah depression? This condition is unique to Chanukah, for most other festivals have a happy ending. The story of Pesach ends with the giving of the Torah at Shavuot. The wandering in the desert, as celebrated at Sukkot, ends with the Jewish people reaching the Promised Land. On Purim the Jewish people are physically saved and the centre of Jewish life moves to Israel, where the Second Temple was taking shape.

For all the joy, miracles and salvations we experience on Chanukah, it all comes crashing down when we internalise the reality of what happened afterwards...

Monday, 3 August 2015

Israel’s leadership and the challenge of consensus

It’s getting unbearably hot in Israel. The aftermath of Friday’s terrorist attack, which bears all the hallmarks of being carried out by Jews, has led to anger, outrage and a sense that something needs to happen, fast. And rightly so — Israelis and Jews around the world are proud of Israel’s tolerant society and respect for all human lives, whether Jewish or not.

The problem is that many of the reactions from Israel’s leadership, however understandable, are lacking, and don’t present a real solution to the huge challenges Israel faces.

Friday, 24 July 2015

Reflections on visiting the King Solomon Israel Trip

I was privileged to spend Shabbat with the King Solomon Israel Trip two weeks ago, as well as seeing them at the Kotel on Tuesday night, just before they returned to the UK. In addition to being special on a personal level, since I taught many of the students in my time at the school, I believe it was a truly unique trip, and I'd like to share some thoughts about it.

1) The ruach on Shabbat was truly one of the most incredible I have ever experienced in my life - and I have merited to eat many a Shabbat meal with groups of young people. Everyone without exception stood on their chairs and sang at the tops of their voices - there was a palpable feeling in the room that something unique was happening. When you consider that tefilla and Jewish songs do not play a large role in the school, this is all the more remarkable. What I take from this is that Israel allowed these young people to express themselves in ways they aren't able to do in a mixed Jewish and non-Jewish school. In Israel, they felt free to be Jewish, sing Jewish and keep Shabbat (even though most do not keep Shabbat at home). Only here was I able to fully appreciate the words of our Sages, "The air of Eretz Yisrael makes one wise", meaning that it has a transformational impact on people's lives.

2) Conversations with some of my former students reminded me of some key principles of education, which it is always important to remind oneself of: Never write anyone off - one of the children who was particularly disobedient in my Jewish Studies classes and could have been dismissed as 'disinterested' three years ago, was the same one who made up an optional Mincha minyan, and who is passionate about returning to Israel next year. There is not a moment when an educator is 'off-duty' - it was fascinating recalling events of years gone by, and being surprised at what still stands in their memories (usually the out-of-the-ordinary hadracha-style lessons and personal comments as opposed to the most content-heavy lessons!). Remember people's names, personalities and stories - young people want to be remembered more than they want to be taught.


3) In the time I was with the group, a few people tried to derail the amazing educational experience that was being had, namely the hotel manager who stormed into the dining room and told the group to stop singing so loudly and the two outwardly-religious men at the Kotel who told the group to be quiet when they were singing Jewish songs. If only they had known what experience they had the effect of damaging, I thought. But then, when I tried to explain it to one of them, he wasn't prepared to engage in any form of conversation. For this insensitivity, lack of understanding of one's fellow and unwillingness to engage in dialogue, I mourn this Tisha B'Av.

4) It is quite clear that what King Solomon students need most of all are madrichim, to serve as proud, Jewish role models that they can aspire to. They had them on the trip, and loved them. Sadly, because of the demise of youth groups in North East London - particularly JYSG, whose niche has never been filled and whose closure has been thoroughly tragic for the community - they are not exposed to many Jewishly-inspired madrichim, or for that matter, Jewish Studies teachers. To anyone in London reading this blog, who has the ability to fulfil this role as a formal teacher or in an informal capacity, I encourage you to get involved, and try and make a difference to a community that really needs you. You will be as enriched by the experience as they will!

Despite the fact that there are many challenges maintaining Jewish identity and education within the North East London Jewish community, I hope these words serve as a comfort to those who are working for it, and a motivation to those who could. The Jewish youth of King Solomon High School deserve only the best that the wider community can provide.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Jerusalem Day: Reroute the parade, reframe the day

I've changed my mind, though the High Court haven't. For years I've been uneasy about the Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day) Flag Parade taking place in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem due to the provocative actions of some marchers, but this year I have become unequivocal.

The catalyst for this was my Facebook feed. Prior to Yom Ha'atzmaut, social media is filled with expressions of pride and joy at Israel's achievements, hope for the future and a religious appreciation of the miracle of the State of Israel. By contrast, the first article I saw for Yom Yerushalayim spoke of racism, incitement and "chilul Hashem" (sacrilege).

The full article can be found on my Times of Israel blog.

Monday, 4 May 2015

15th Iyar: The Origins of the Omer

“They journeyed from Elim, and the entire community of the children of Israel came to the desert of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after their departure from the land of Egypt. The entire community of the children of Israel complained against Moshe and against Aharon in the desert. The children of Israel said to them, If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by pots of meat, when we ate bread to our fill! For you have brought us out into this desert, to starve this entire congregation to death” (Shemot 16:1-3).

In the Jewish calendar, we see many months contain an historical event of note on the fifteenth of the month, for example Pesach, Shushan Purim and Tu B'Av. The essence of these months are defined by the month's central event, hence Nisan is considered the month of redemption. I would like to suggest that in the same manner, the month of Iyar is also defined by the event that took place on its fifteenth of the month: the giving of the manna.

In the first year of the Exodus, the Jewish people did not have an easy journey from leaving slavery in Egypt to arriving at Mount Sinai to accept the Torah. They had five major difficulties on the way: war with Egypt at the Yam Suf; no water at Marah; no food in Midbar Sin; no water at Masa U'merivah; war with Amalek at Refidim. Of these, the most serious and fundamental challenge to the Jewish people and its relationship with God was the manna, given by God in response to their complaints of food.

It is the complaint of food that first brought the accusation against Moshe and Aharon that their entire motive of the Exodus was to starve the people. Beforehand, when the people complained about a lack of water, their complaints did not reach this level of criticism, as they simply asked 'What shall we drink?' The manna, as a response to this complaint, was certainly the most difficult change for the people to implement. They struggled with the idea that they had to take all of the manna that fell, and not leave any for the morning - and even more so on Friday, when they had to trust that the food would last them two days.

Following years of slavery, the people could deal with the challenges of war, which required an immediate salvation. They could also deal with the challenge of a lack of water, since if it was there, they would drink it, and if it wasn't they would ask and immediately receive it. Yet the challenge of not being able to make food constituted a fundamental change in attitudes to daily life. It is not natural or pleasant to be reliant on someone else to provide food for one's family. However bad slavery was, it allowed people a modicum of this aspect of normal life.

The purpose of the manna, and the reason why it needed to be eaten for an entire generation, was to inculcate in the people the fundamental truth that wherever they are in the world, all sustenance is ultimately bestowed by God. The manna was never intended to be an ideal. Rather, it was a practice for the ultimate test: living in the Land of Israel, working in agriculture, producing one's own food and realising that at every turn, the final product was only possible due to God's guiding hand and providence.

It is fascinating, therefore, that the first time we encounter the word 'omer', it is in the context of the giving of the manna on the fifteenth of Iyar, and appears six times in the chapter. The omer is a measurement, and the amount for each person to take of manna each day. The Torah is very precise about this, mentioning that the people measured it, and describing the omer relative to other measurements (it was a tenth of an ephah).

And it is this very same measurement that the Jewish people are commanded to bring before God as an offering, "when they come to the Land...and you reap its harvest" (Vayikra 23:10). The Torah in brief, and the Mishna in detail, explain how the Cohen waves the omer before God as a sign of the people's acknowledgement that it is God who gives sustenance to the people. The significance of using an omer's worth of produce should not be missed: it is through the omer of manna that the people internalised this truth.

The ritual of Seder Night teaches us to appreciate our political reality - freedom as opposed to slavery, and how it was God who gave us it. The ritual of the Omer teaches us to appreciate something even more fundamental: our very existence as human beings depends on His sustenance. Perhaps this is why the Omer ritual was to be performed on the sixteenth of Nisan, the very next day after Pesach and the Seder night.

Yet the Torah does not merely proscribe the internalisation of this message to one day. Rather, after describing the Korban Omer (Omer sacrifice) performed by the Cohen, the Torah commands each and every person to count "for themselves" the days from when the Omer was first brought (16th Nisan) for seven complete weeks (Vayikra 23:15), after which a 'new offering' of bread is brought, on the holiday known as Shavuot. Through these mitzvot, we see that the process of the Omer is an individual and national journey of appreciating the level of interaction between God and the Jewish people. God is not 'merely' a power that can free the people from slavery, or conjure up water, but rather nurtures us constantly, creating the conditions by which man can produce his own food, and live each day in appreciation of how he is able to do it.

A month after the Exodus, the fifteenth of Iyar saw the biggest challenge of the post-Exodus plan. In the same way that the short-term response to it was far-reaching in its ramifications, with the people eating manna for 40 years, the long-term response was similarly far reaching, with the mitzvah of counting the Omer encompassing every day of the month of Iyar each year. Therefore as we count the Omer today, like all other days, and internalise the reality that God is the ultimate source of all our physical day-to-day needs, we transform a day that could have created an irreparable rift between the Jewish people and God to one that cements our interdependence, and everlasting relationship.