In a world intent on endlessly criticizing Israel, the Japanese Makuya are something else. At least once a year - beginning shortly after the state's founding in 1948 - a delegation of Makuya makes a pilgrimage to Israel. They have only one objective: to show their support for Israel and - even more unusually - to emphasize their unconditional love for Jews and Judaism. The Makuya aren't converts. They aren't political. They aren't asking Jews to change anything, let alone convert to their own religious beliefs. In fact, the Makuya have no agenda of any kind. All they ask is to be able to visit several of Israel's holy sites, socialize with the Israeli friends they've acquired over the years, and immerse themselves in Jewish and Israeli culture. This year's pilgrimage of 43 Makuya from Japan arrived in Israel in late February and made their way to Beersheba in early March. Accompanied by a contingent of Makuya students who are spending six months in Israel, staying either in Jerusalem or studying Hebrew at Kibbutz Heftziba, near Mount Gilboa, this year the whole group decided to march for the first time in Beersheba. With the women dressed in delicate and colorful kimonos, the men decked out in happi (traditional festival coats) in blue and white, with the Star of David on the back, they paraded through portions of Beersheba's Old City, singing Jewish songs in perfect Israeli-accented Hebrew. At mid-point, they paused, accompanied by an accordion, to perform several Israeli dances. Some distributed exquisite little origami birds among the gathered crowds. As the Makuya filled the Old City streets and plazas, Beersheba's café crowd, sitting outdoors and enjoying the warm sun after a week of cold wind and rain, couldn't quite believe what they were seeing. Who were all these traditionally-clad young Japanese, waving Israeli flags, singing "Shalom Aleichem" and "Am Yisrael Chai?" Once the dancing started, things changed. Most of the café patrons joined in, singing and cheering. There was a Pied Piper effect, as bystanders joined the parade, curious - if nothing else - about what this highly unusual group might be doing. "The Makuya came because we love Israel," said Yeremiyahu Norio Kado, who lives in Jerusalem as the group's permanent representative in Israel. "We feel a very strong connection here, so every year - war or no war - we come to visit holy sites and to learn about Israel. This year we were so pleased that when the Makuya arrived, so did the rains. Because of the drought, the rain was a very welcome blessing for Israel." A few dances later, the Makuya marched off again, still singing. When they reached the municipal building, Beersheba's deputy mayor, Dr. Hefzi Zahor, officially welcomed them in Hebrew, with a Makuya member simultaneously translating her greeting into Japanese. The welcoming ceremony over, the Makuya reboarded their bus and set off to various other points of interest, including David Ben-Gurion's grave at Sde Boker. Ben-Gurion is one of their great heroes. Beersheba was their last major stop on this year's pilgrimage. Shortly thereafter, the Makuya returned to Japan. Who are the Makuya? The word itself is the Japanese translation of the Hebrew phrase "Ohel Moed" - the meeting place of God and man, the place where God's spirit dwelt. The organization came into being in May 1948 when Abraham Ikuro Teshima, a successful Christian businessman, came to the conclusion that for the Japanese, a return to the original dynamic faith of the early Hebrew Christians was necessary. A key concept in Teshima's philosophy calls for a deeper understanding of Jewish belief and practice, which he regarded as essential for the full comprehension of the Bible. "Not [everyone] understands our fervent love toward Israel," Teshima wrote in his book, Israel in the Divine History. "Some criticize that we Makuya are too Middle Eastern; some call us 'Judeo-Christians.' But, in actuality, Judaism and Christianity were not two different religions in the beginning, but two branches of one root, the religion of the Bible. As Rabbi Abraham J. Heschel once said, 'Different are the languages of prayer, but the tears are the same.' We have a vision in common of Him in whose compassion all prayers meet." The Beersheba-Makuya connection began 28 years ago, when Rabbi Pinchas Peli, author of The Jerusalem Post's long-running "Torah Today" column, asked Beersheba's Dr. Aviv Meltzer if he'd go to Japan for three months to teach Hebrew to the Makuya. Meltzer knew very little about the group at the time. "Aviv went," says Dr. Sara Fine-Meltzer, who ultimately became as passionate about the Makuya as her husband, and this year served as the local coordinator for the group's pilgrimage. "Not only did Aviv teach them Hebrew for six to eight hours a day, but when it became clear that a Hebrew-Japanese dictionary was needed, [he] worked on that, too. When the dictionary was finally published, they presented a copy to then-president Chaim Herzog. When President Herzog accepted the book, he had tears in his eyes." The Meltzers recently spent another three months living among the Makuya in Tokyo. "We lived near what I call the 'motherhouse,'" Fine-Meltzer said. "The Makuya live all over Japan, but the largest group of them lives in Tokyo. There are many different meeting groups, but we lived near the biggest, which probably had 200 families. It was like living on a kibbutz - our door was always open as people kept popping in for a little visit, just to say hello. They're a very close knit group, they all know and care about each other, but at the same time, in Japan, they're very mainstream. They work in all different kinds of professions and jobs, many in electronics and hi-tech, many for Japanese-Israeli companies, and many others in just normal Japanese jobs. Since many of them speak fluent Hebrew, some are employed by the Israeli embassy in Japan." Fine-Meltzer initiated the Makuya's march in Beersheba this year when she invited them to come to the Negev in addition to their usual visits to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. "It all started a week before we left Japan," Fine-Meltzer recalled. "We were in Yokohama, talking to one of our best Makuya friends, a man who's writing a book on David Ben-Gurion. 'I don't understand,' I told him. 'David Ben-Gurion is one of your heroes. You've always gone to Ben-Gurion's grave, and you've planted tens of thousands of olive trees in the Negev. Why don't you come march in Beersheba this year, in addition to your other stops?' He thought about it, then said they'd come - and then he added, 'If we say we'll be there, we will be there. It doesn't matter how many bombs are falling, we will come.'" In fact, the Makuya tradition is to come to Israel during times of war. In his book, Abraham Teshima recounts how, in 1967, just before the Six Day War, he sent several students to Israel to help in any way they could. Not long after, he organized a pro-Zionist demonstration outside the United Nations Building in New York. When the Japanese Red Army attacked Lod Airport near Tel Aviv in 1968, Teshima himself rushed to Israel to apologize on behalf of Japan and to donate money to the families of those killed. Weeks before he passed away in 1973, Teshima organized the first pro-Israel demonstration ever held in Japan. That day, 3,000 Makuya marched along the Ginza, singing "Am Yisrael Chai" and carrying banners supporting Israel. According to Fine-Meltzer, the Makuya follow several Jewish traditions. "Many of them light Shabbat candles, and they know all the holidays, they know Kiddush. They don't follow our dietary laws, but they dress very modestly. If you notice, the women all wear a particular hairstyle. That's because Teshima had a dream one night and saw how that was the way women should look, so that's how they wear their hair. "One night in Japan we were sitting talking, and Aviv asked a question. 'Suppose you're in a town where there are no Makuya,' he said. 'There's only a church and a synagogue. Where would you go?' The man didn't even hesitate. 'To the shul.' 'Why?' Aviv asked. 'Because the Jews have a more direct road to God.'" The Meltzers also helped give some of the Makuya Hebrew names. "Most of them have Hebrew names in addition to their Japanese names, especially those who have made the pilgrimage to Israel. But while we were there, we helped give names to some who didn't. There are now second-, third- and fourth-generation Makuya in Japan, because [the movement has] been around that long. But they also publish a newsletter that's available on street corners. Some people come to the organization by reading one of those newsletters and becoming interested. But they don't do any overt proselytizing, even among the Japanese. It's a very low-key organization." Another Jewish tradition the Makuya follow is not to count their members. "There's no precise count of how many there are," Fine-Meltzer says. "But a rough estimate is somewhere between 60,000 - 80,000." Some of the Israelis who turned out to watch the parade were long-time friends of the Makuya, others were seeing them for the first time. For most, it was nearly impossible not to be impressed. "Today, when so many people are against Israel, it's so refreshing and heartwarming to see the Makuya, who love Israel," commented Hannah Blachman, adding that she was enjoying her first experience with the Makuya. Alan Baum, on the other hand, has known many Makuya well, having first met them several years ago. "Every year when they come, I enjoy being with them and socializing," he said. "I'll never forget the first time I met them. It was a Friday night dinner, and I was astonished - they knew all the zemirot, Shabbat songs, better than I did. They sang in perfect Hebrew, without even looking at the siddur. Once they come on a pilgrimage, they never lose contact with Israel. They're just about the best supporters we have in the whole world." If founder Abraham Teshima could have heard Baum's words, he'd be pleased. That's exactly what he intended. "Small as its geographical territory is, Israel occupies the foremost place in the eyes of God," Teshima wrote. "We wish to encourage and console the people who have been dispersed and homeless for 2,000 years. We wish to show that there is a people who rejoices in the restoration of Jerusalem and cares for the welfare of future Israel." As the Makuya marched through Beersheba, they brought hope and inspiration. In today's world of hate and strife, there are those who love us, too.

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