CHIEF RABBI OF THE LAND OF THE RISING SUN
October 20, 2015
Beis Moshiach in #922, Japan, Shlichus

In a historic ceremony, the shliach, R’ Binyamin Edery, was recently appointed as Chief Rabbi of Japan. In an exclusive interview with Beis Moshiach he tells of the behind the scenes dramas related to the appointment and tells of action on behalf of farmers after the tsunami, about battles to bring Jewish people to Jewish burial, and outreach to inmates, both Jewish and not Jewish

By Zalman Tzorfati

The pictures of the bearded rabbi dressed in rescue gear and helping people in areas stricken with radioactivity following the tsunami, which caused the breakdown of nuclear power plants, appeared again and again on the screens throughout Japan and became the talk of the day on Japanese media.

R’ Binyamin Edery is in Japan on shlichus for over fifteen years, operating quietly. The public became aware of him and his work mainly through tragedies, when he helped out after the tsunami and with the Israeli bachurim incarcerated in Japan.

Recently, as the Japanese government’s sign of appreciation for his work, he was appointed as Chief Rabbi of Japan.

ONE AGAINST THE WORLD

As a shliach of the Rebbe you were always the person to turn to for Jewish matters. What does an official government appointment signify?

It is important for many reasons. Take, for example, Jewish burial. Part of our shlichus work is to provide Jewish burial. Many Jews live in Japan. Some of them arrived after the Holocaust and assimilated here. We regularly get reports about Jews who died and we work on getting them Jewish burial. Sometimes they are people we know who were in touch with us and sometimes they are people who live 1000 or 1500 kilometers away from Tokyo.

In every such instance it is a complicated process since the law in Japan is that bodies are automatically cremated. Sometimes, the non-Jewish family interferes and then it really becomes a battle. We once had a situation in which we legally fought a non-Jewish family that demanded cremation. I was able to delay the cremation for a month and a half while the body was stored in cold storage. Unfortunately, we lost in the end. I argued that the man visited our Chabad House and asked me personally for a Jewish burial, but the court maintained that since we had no official standing, we could not make a claim.

CLOSE CONTACT WITH THE EMBASSIES

So your official appointment will help in cases like that?

Yes. While previously I had to try to come up with various ways of explaining to the judge why I was getting involved, now it is obvious and official that as Chief Rabbi of the country I am responsible for Jewish burial. This will enable us to save many Jews and provide them with a halachic burial.

Boruch Hashem, since the official appointment, whenever we hear of a Jew who is nearing the end of his life, we get him to sign a form in which he authorizes the chief rabbinate of Japan to take care of him after he dies.

We had someone here who learned in Tomchei T’mimim in his youth who went off the derech and lived here for nearly fifty years. Before he died, he asked his gentile family to allow us to take care of his burial and we were able to bring him to Jewish burial with a minyan, tahara, and shrouds.

We recently had a case of a very wealthy woman who died, a known donor to the State of Israel. She came here with her husband before the Holocaust and together they founded the biggest toy manufacturing company in Japan. Thanks to my official status, we were able to circumvent all the Health Ministry laws and the usual formalities in Japan regarding flying bodies and were able to send the body for Jewish burial in California, as the family requested.

Is there a Jewish cemetery in Japan?

Yes. In Tokyo there is an old cemetery, over 200 years old. The cost of burial is around $30,000. The Rebbe has even referred to this cemetery.

A Jew dies 1500 kilometers away from where you live and the family is not interested in a burial. How do you get this information?

Usually through foreign embassies. Boruch Hashem we have good connections with all the main foreign embassies in Japan like the British, French, and American embassies. I have personal connections with over 115 foreign consulates. Every year, on the Fourth of July, I am invited to the American embassy to say a few words. We have close ties with them. They receive information about every citizen of their country who dies in Japan. When they know it’s a Jew, they immediately contact us.

***

R’ Edery’s close connection with the embassies mainly began with his work in prisons. It started with visiting Jewish inmates, which turned into helping all foreigners incarcerated in Japan. Most of them, like the Israeli bachurim, are charged with transporting illegal substances.

Although he began his work to try to help Jewish prisoners, he quickly found himself helping and visiting non-Jewish inmates as well. He explains, “My work with non-Jews helps me make connections with Jewish inmates. As a result of this work, when any of the foreign embassies become aware of a case involving a Jew, they immediately suggest contacting me, and that is how many cases come my way.”

RABBANIM SIGN TO THE APPOINTMENT

R’ Edery’s certification for the chief rabbinate of Japan is signed by a rare mix of rabbanim from across the spectrum of religious Israeli Jewry starting with the Badatz HaEida HaChareidis, Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzchok Yosef, Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi Dovid Lau, as well as rabbis of cities such as R’ Yitzchok Dovid Grossman and dozens of other rabbis, most of them members of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate.

The authorities in Japan are not known to be particularly flexible and the laws there are strict. This is why the official recognition of the position of Chief Rabbi and the appointment of R’ Edery is a miracle.

“After the Israeli Chief Rabbinate approved and recommended the appointment, a bureaucratic process that took more than two years began. First, they had to decide which government office would deal with it. After they determined that it would be under the authority of the Ministry of Legal Affairs, it still took a long time. The Ministry of Legal Affairs conducted thorough, wide-ranging inquiries and checks with the usual Japanese meticulousness. After two years of discussions and investigations, I was invited by the Ministry of Legal Affairs to an official appointment ceremony.”

Despite R’ Edery’s great help to inmates and providing Jews with Jewish burial, the government’s appointment of him as Chief Rabbi is primarily an expression of thanks for his contribution to the nation following the last tsunami that devastated the country.

While all foreign representatives and whoever was able to, fled the area, and while the media warned of the danger of just being there, R’ Edery went every day to affected areas with trucks full of food and supplies. He distributed it all to residents affected by the tsunami.

A POTATO FOR THE DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER

Following his appointment, R’ Edery was invited to meet with the Deputy Prime Minister of Japan who is a powerful figure in the country. The purpose of the meeting was to formally congratulate the rabbi on his new position and make his brief acquaintance. The meeting, which was allotted ten minutes, extended to over an hour and a half! Japanese are precise and plan things down to the smallest details and every minute of the daily schedule of the Deputy Prime Minister is planned by his office months in advance. The only thing that can explain this aberration is that they did not expect the phenomenon which is R’ Binyamin Edery.

“I arrived at the meeting accompanied by some friends from the Chabad House who are key figures in Tokyo. According to Japanese tradition, each member of a delegation brings a token gift. I brought a potato.”

A potato? Are you serious?

Yes. In Japan, there is a certain type of sweet potato called Yakimo, which is a Japanese delicacy. It looks ordinary but the inside has a unique texture and sweetness. The top chefs in Japan broil it in a certain way which turns it into a delicacy.

The Yakimo is not easily obtainable and is considered a food which represents the culture of high society in Japan. You need to be really into Japanese gastronomy to understand the significance of this vegetable to the Japanese.

One of the mekuravim of the Chabad House is the owner of an agricultural company which grows and develops various breeds of the Yakimo and during the tsunami they distributed thousands of tons of this potato.

In the middle of the meeting, I took out the Yakimo and presented it as a gift. I told him that we gave this out, in the thousands of tons, to those affected by the tsunami. The Deputy Prime Minister was very moved, both by the fact that a foreigner knew about the Yakimo and that we had distributed it to the needy. He was so moved that he asked us to arrange a shipment of Yakimo for all employees of the ministry.

The atmosphere at the meeting was so special that he wanted it to continue, on and on. He said he always saw me on the news and was amazed by my devotion to the Japanese people. He expressed great interest in all the work of the Chabad House and at a certain point we even did a Japanese dance, to the surprise of all those present.

***

At the end of the meeting the Deputy Prime Minister asked R’ Edery how he could be of help. R’ Edery, who surprised him earlier with the potato, continued to surprise him when he asked for government assistance for farmers in the areas affected by the tsunami, who still have not recovered from the damages and the radioactive leaks from the nuclear reactors.

As R’ Edery sees it, his concern for Japanese farmers is part of the activities of Melech HaMoshiach in the world, for Moshiach cares about humanity through his shluchim.

Shortly after the meeting, the Chabad House received a letter from the Deputy Prime Minister, in which he thanked R’ Edery for the fascinating meeting. He expressed his feelings about the special gift and blessed the chief rabbi with success in his activities.

The meeting with the deputy minister was broadcast in all the media and led to a series of meetings with other senior people in the Japanese government. The Minister of Agriculture asked him to lecture to the ministry staff about kashrus and many wanted to hear more about Judaism and the Seven Noachide Laws. This all came about following R’ Edery’s work in the wake of the tsunami.

***

In recent years, R’ Edery has started providing kashrus hashgacha under the KJ, which has generated great interest on the part of government offices and industries involved in the food business. The Chabad House also operates a kosher restaurant.

“In addition to the restaurant that offers high quality kosher food, the people who come also put on t’fillin. The restaurant is located opposite the university, which is attended by Jewish students from all over the world and many of them eat kosher food thanks to us. We also provide a hechsher on many products produced here which are marketed in various Jewish markets internationally. Lately, a hechsher was given to saki, a famous alcoholic Japanese beverage.”

THE BACHURIM INCARCERATED IN JAPAN

A few years ago, the frum world was fixated on the “bachurim in Japan,” three Israeli yeshiva bachurim who were arrested for being in possession of illegal substances. They maintained that they were used by a third person who asked them to take suitcases for him and they did not realize what they contained, but that did not help them and they were sentenced to years in jail.

R’ Edery worked behind the scenes from the day they were arrested until they were released.

“The day after their arrest, the police contacted me and asked whether I knew them. I said I did not, but I would be happy to visit them. Within a few hours I had visited the three separate prisons where the bachurim were held and met with them. They were still in shock. I was the first person they were willing to talk to. They did not know who was on their side and who wasn’t. I gave each of them a Chitas and encouraged them. After that, we kept in constant contact.

“Over several years, I went to visit them twice a week. Their families would come regularly to stay with us when they were in Japan. I was also invited to all their simchos in Eretz Yisroel and attended some of them.

“By the way, since then, I have an excellent connection with Rabbi C.Y.D. Weiss, the Satmar dayan of Antwerp Belgium, one of the most distinguished dayanim in the frum world, who personally got involved with the case and worked tirelessly until the bachurim were released.”

RABBI WEISS TESTS THE EDERY BOYS AND IS AMAZED

“Whenever Rabbi Weiss came here, he would visit us and test my boys. He tested them in Gemara, Mishnayos, Chumash and Halacha. He was very impressed and would keep saying, “I don’t understand how with the shlichus and in such a place, they know all this.” He did not understand how a child who does not learn in school could be on that academic level. I must thank Avromi Kenig of Migdal HaEmek who learns with them on the phone every morning and has been doing so for over seven years!

“Not just me, but my children too, the older ones and the younger ones, would go several hours by train to visit them. It was quite a sight. Picture a Jewish boy with a yarmulke and a knapsack asking a local Japanese person where the prison is. They sometimes got sympathetic looks from the Japanese who thought they were visiting their father.

“My children still go to visit prisoners in jail. It is part of our shlichus and theirs. They talk to them and bring them parsha pages; it’s their mivtzaim.

“One time, there was a legal hearing in the case of one of the bachurim in the middle of Sukkos. I brought him a lulav because you couldn’t bring one to the prison. I gave it to him to recite the bracha and afterward he told me how much that bracha strengthened him.”

***

“For years now, I travel all over Japan to visit prisons. I don’t think there is a single city in Japan that has a prison where I have not visited both Jewish and non-Jewish inmates.

“In Japan, when someone is in jail, he is an untouchable. Sometimes even his immediate family shuns him. I once stood in the entrance to a prison and ran into someone who had just been released. I asked him where he was going and he said he did not have where to go and that his family disowned him. I gave him money so he could get to town and he thanked me warmly. He said that I was the first person who ever did something for him.”

AGAINST ALL ODDS – THE REBBE SAID TO APPEAL

“I once met a young Englishman of Sikh descent at the entrance to the prison. It was at the time that the bachurim were held there. His wife was sentenced to eight years in jail for the same reason as the bachurim and he had come to Japan with his wife’s sister to try and gain her release.

“I said I wanted to help them. I knew a top lawyer who took relatively little money from them. When I returned to the Chabad House I wrote to the Rebbe about it and the answer I opened to said not to stop taking action.

“I understood from the letter that the Rebbe wanted them to appeal and I told them so. The problem is that in Japan it is very hard to appeal, and in 99.9% of the cases, the appeals are rejected. But I urged them to try. They submitted an appeal and the wife was miraculously acquitted. When I left the hearing they told me they had won solely thanks to the rabbi’s blessing. Afterward, they came to a thanksgiving meal at the Chabad House and told everyone about the letter from the Rebbe in the Igros Kodesh, thanks to which the wife was released.”

ADDRESSING INTERMARRIAGE

One of the focuses of the shlichus in Tokyo, in addition to the usual Chabad House activities, is the fight against assimilation. In Japan there are quite a few Israelis who married local gentile women. R’ Edery’s agenda is to confront this problem, even if it means people will feel uncomfortable and might leave the Shabbos meal in the middle. Truth is truth, he says, and he believes that’s the only way to be successful in this area.

“We have an Israeli fellow who had a gentile Japanese girlfriend for years, and yet he had no compunction about coming to us, participating in all the programs and having Shabbos meals with us. Our approach is to speak about intermarriage directly. At one Shabbos meal, I brought up the topic from every possible angle and spoke in favor of marrying Jewish and about the detriments in marrying out.

“About 50-60 people were sitting there but that Israeli guy felt I was talking just to him. He came over to me and said, ‘It is not comfortable for me to continue sitting here while you speak like that; I’m leaving.’

“I said goodbye and hoped that I had done the right thing and Hashem would take over.

“By 11:30 that night everyone had already left and I was also getting ready to go to sleep. I heard knocking at the door and I went downstairs and there was the Israeli guy. He apologized for coming so late and of course I invited him in.

“He had an interesting story to tell. He had gone back that night to his gentile girlfriend and told her what happened at the Shabbos meal and why he had left in the middle. He naively thought that she would empathize.

“Instead, she began cursing him and criticizing him for going out without her. He had not expected this and he angrily left their house for the Chabad House. He slept over at our place and the next morning was even the tenth man at the minyan. On Motzaei Shabbos we spoke for hours and this time he was more open to listening, but it still wasn’t easy for him to make a decision. We wrote to the Rebbe and the answer was to go to Eretz Yisroel. He said he had thought of doing that, in light of his mother’s repeated begging him to come home. The next day he bought a ticket and flew home.

“He was greatly inspired and when he landed in Eretz Yisroel he put on a kippa. He was hosted by a Chabad family that first Shabbos and he told them his story, how he had been with this woman for nine years and parting from her was so hard. The chevra convinced him to call her and tell her that he had chosen the path of Torah. Since then, he became a baal t’shuva and has a beautiful Lubavitcher family. His mother thanked us for the continuity of her family, for he is an only child.”

MOSHIACH IN TOKYO

There is one thing you cannot miss at the Chabad House in Tokyo, which is the focus on the Besuras Ha’Geula. It is unnecessary to ask whether this turns people off after hearing about the labor-intensive work of the Chabad House that places it at the forefront of Chabad outreach on the Asian continent.

“Japan is full of idolatry and so when a Jew comes to the Chabad House he is not interested in hearing half-truths or polished truths. He wants the whole truth! When things are said sincerely and people see what sacrifices we live with just for this purpose, they respect it and accept it,” says R’ Edery firmly but with a smile.

“When you live with Moshiach, your entire life becomes Moshiach; the children behave accordingly and help and clean up, they don’t raise their voices and they respect one another, for the Rebbe could appear at any moment.

“People sense if you are telling them the truth or are trying to sell them some half-baked ideas. When you do it right, then the external dress and publicity about Moshiach are not merely externals but something internal that bursts forth. The Chabad House is full of posters about Moshiach and Moshiach flags. We have rabbanim coming here, dayanim who belong to Satmar, and it doesn’t bother them; on the contrary, they respect it.

“The chairman of the Conference of European Rabbis (CER), the late R’ Aba Dunner z”l, would stay with us regularly whenever he came to Japan to help the incarcerated bachurim. He was a Litvak and kept Shabbos two days in a row (because of the International Dateline) and followed his customs, but that did not stop him from dancing Yechi together with our children.

“The first time he came here, he asked why we had to publicize our belief. I said, I am a Chassid and as a Chassid I follow what the Rebbe said. He was silent, he looked at me, and then he said that he had seen the Rebbe in private audiences and had attended farbrengens in 770, and that was the feeling he had too.”

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NOACHIDE OUTREACH

You talk a lot about your work with B’nei Noach. What’s the idea behind your work with non-Jews?

First of all, the Seven Noachide Laws is also one of the Rebbe’s campaigns. Second, when a Jew sees that a gentile worships G-d, he is moved and he wonders, where am I in this story? When he sees that a gentile asks, what does G-d say, he says to himself, do I ask that?

We see this all the time. Every Shabbos that a Jew comes and sees a non-Jew who is utterly subservient to G-d, it gets him thinking very seriously. Work that could take years happens in an instant.

I’ll tell you a story that happened recently. A Japanese gentile, who is close with the Chabad House for years already, was very successful in life. One evening, he went for a drink somewhere. He met a young man and as they got to talking, the young man said he was Jewish.

The gentile asked him, “Do you know Rabbi Binyamin?”

“Of course,” he said. “I know him but I don’t like him. I can’t go to him because he’s always talking to me about my non-Jewish girlfriend.”

The two sat and talked all night, and the non-Jew convinced the Jew, based on things he had heard at the Chabad House, that for his good and for the sake of his girlfriend, they should break up.

“If I was a Jew, I would never marry a Japanese woman!” said the non-Jew.

At 5:30 in the morning, the two of them knocked at my door. I went downstairs and saw the two of them and wondered what they had to do with one another. I knew the Jewish guy; he had grown up on one of the religious yishuvim and had learned in a Litvishe yeshiva. I asked what was going on and they told me the story.

The Jewish guy wrote a letter to the Rebbe and the answer in the Igros Kodesh was, “‘False is grace and vain is beauty, a G-d fearing woman is praiseworthy,’ especially when speaking of a person who attended yeshiva …”

He was stunned. He asked me, “What do I do now?”

I said, you write her a letter and say you’re not going back to her. You send it by registered mail so she herself will open it.

That’s what he did. Two weeks later he left Japan and went home.

How do you explain Moshiach to B’nei Noach?

First, there are things they don’t ask much about. They understand the basics – that the Rebbe is Moshiach and Moshiach is good.

Second, there are many righteous gentiles among them. Everything they do is to fulfill what G-d wants. They are very serious people, businessmen and intellectuals, who study Chassidus and work to fulfill their role in rectifying the world.

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (http://beismoshiachmagazine.org/).
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