Light to the nation

The Jews of Japan step up in the wake of the disasters and aid their countrymen.

Rabbi Binyamin Edrey in Japan 520 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Rabbi Binyamin Edrey in Japan 520
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Efrat Edrey sits in her modest kitchen in the Omori neighborhood of this sprawling metropolis, surrounded by her six children, aged two to 10, trying to juggle several jobs at the same time: mother, cook, disciplinarian and caretaker. Add emergency relief efforts coordinator to the list.
Since last Friday she has worked tirelessly alongside her husband, Rabbi Binyamin Edrey, who runs one of two Chabad houses here, to organize desperate deliveries of goods and foodstuffs to the victims of the earthquake and tsunami which battered Japan and has been compounded by the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima power plants.
“On Saturday my husband received a call from Hikata Mitsu,” she said, referring to a Japanese friend of his. “He is originally from Sendai [one of the areas hardest hit by the March 11 tsunami] and said he wanted to help people up north but didn’t know what to do. That minute Binyamin told him that they should go together, take all the food and clothing and gas they can and give it to them.”
The rabbi, his Japanese friend and another Japanese associate, who is in the process of writing a book about him, got in a car and knowingly drove half way across Japan’s central island right into a disaster area to offer their help, repeating this feat three times over the past week.
Back at her house, my interview with Edrey is interrupted every 10 minutes by a phone call related to the ongoing relief work up north. She speaks in turn Japanese, Brooklyn English or perfect Hebrew, depending on the need.
I asked her about the fear of radiation. Wasn’t she worried, like so many expatriates who chose to leave the city, that it should spread from Fukushima to Tokyo? “At a time like this, it’s our duty to remain here and provide support to the people of Japan,” she said. “There’s no doubt there’s been a gap in how it’s been reported here and around the world.”
Edrey said she derived her inspiration from a story about how a gentile saved her grandfather’s life during World War II by helping him escape Austria. Surely, the moral of the tale was to leave while one can, I said.
“No, now is our time to return the favor and help them in their time of need,” she said.
The Edreys, I’ve learned since I arrived in Japan last week, are part of an elaborate Jewish support system for the disaster victims involving disparate members of the community numbering some 2,500 which also receives monetary support from their brethren in the US.
In Sendai, Roi Samekh, an Israeli married to a local woman, who runs an Israeli restaurant, is helping the Jewish community of Japan working in conjunction with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee through the local NGO JEN to care for the needy.
“Right now it’s very hard to get food,” he said over the phone. “You need to wait in line for gas, there’s no running water, no cooking gas and some houses are still without electricity. While the situation within the city is somehow okay, the coast is totally devastated. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. The situation is improving, but at a snail’s pace.”
He said he didn’t follow the news much and wasn’t concerned about the situation in Fukushima.
“Whether there is or isn’t radiation, I’m not scared,” he said.
He compared the situation in Japan at the moment with the way Israel is seen from the outside.
“The same way you go abroad and people ask you whether things are okay in Israel, it’s the same thing here but with radiation,” he said.
To some it might come as a surprise that Japan even has a Jewish community, but according to Larry Greenberg, a member of the board of directors at Tokyo’s Jewish community center, it has been around since at least 1953.
I met him at the sleek center building in the central Shibuya neighborhood that was completed just six months ago with the help of a $6 million donation. “And the donor has remained anonymous,” he told me.
After a tour of the premises which includes a synagogue (Conservative), a kindergarten, a dining room, several classrooms and offices and was designed by renowned architect Maki, Greenberg said the community was in a process of becoming more Japanese.
“The center was established in 1953 but I wouldn’t think of it back then as being the Jewish community of Japan but rather a bunch of Jews in Japan,” he explained. “They came here to play games and drink vodka. Now we have a very international community. We have board members from Israel, the US and Zimbabwe. Most are married to Japanese spouses. There was a bar mitzva recently of a boy who read the haftara in Hebrew and gave speeches in English and Japanese, and that’s wonderful if we don’t want to be transitory.”
On the matter of the troubles that have visited Japan of late he, like many others I’ve spoken to, was angered by the portrayal of the events by Western media.
“The media feeding frenzy is distorted,” he said. “CNN had its reporter in Japan get to Libya so fast, it makes you wonder how many private jets it has.”
Greenberg said that after much deliberation he and his wife had buckled to pressure and decided it best that she and their child sit the crisis out in New York, but that in retrospect it was a mistake.
“When I brought my wife to the airport it was scary,” he said. “I know only a few others who have stayed, but since Saturday noon there’s been progress.”
EARLIER THAT week had I visited Rabbi David Gingold at the synagogue in Kobe, a city adjacent to Osaka, where I met two Israelis who had fled Sendai after the disaster.
Ariel Meirson and Amit Milis, two businessmen who have lived in the city, which was one of the hardest hit by the tsunami and quake, for several years with their families, were telling a captivated audience the story of how they survived.
“Everything shook for minutes and you couldn’t stand up,” Milis said, spreading his hands as if reliving his story. “It was terrifying. All the pictures on the wall fell down except one that had Hebrew words inscribed on it.”
While Milis’s house is located inland, Meirson lives relatively close to the coast, putting him in danger from the massive wave which was by far the deadlier of the two catastrophes.
“After the earthquake, a helicopter appeared over my neighborhood and blared ‘tsunami, tsunami, tsunami’ through loudspeakers,” Meirson recalled.
“I heard the warning and rushed to find my landlord, but he was nowhere to be found. Then I ran outside but nobody was home or on the street either. Finally, I bumped into someone who told me they were all taking cover on the third floor of the local school so that the water wouldn’t reach them.”
Meirson joined his neighbors at the school, where they waited anxiously in the dark, bracing for the tsunami to come. Luckily, it never did. The waters stopped a few hundred meters away from them, but the crushing wave had taken away much of the rest of the neighborhood.
Meanwhile, after hearing about the tsunami on the news, Milis jumped into his car and raced toward his friend’s house.
“I got in and started driving,” he said. “On the way I saw whole neighborhoods gone, cars and houses swept away. When I got to your house,” he said, tapping Meirson on the shoulder, “I couldn’t find you and I thought, who knows? Maybe he hadn’t made it.
But then a neighbor said you were all at the school.”
Milis, Meirson and their families have been taken in by Gingold and are staying above the synagogue in Kobe until they decide what to do.
Gingold said about 500 Jews lived in the Kansai region, where Osaka and Kobe are located.
“The community was established in 1952 and we have a minyan every week,” he said.
Milis and Meirson are now recovering from their ordeal, but how they got to Kobe from Sendai, 100 kilometers to the north is a story, in itself.
For the first few days following the disaster, they remained in Sendai without electricity, living without heat in the bitter cold and growing short of food. They couldn’t leave because the roads were cut off and they had little gasoline.
“They told me to go to the coast and take gas from the wrecked cars, but I couldn’t,” Milis said. “If I went there and saw people lying on the ground, who knows in what condition... there’s no way I’d would go there.”
Nearing the point of despair, they decided to risk it and drive cross country with half a tank of gas. In planning their route, there was a significant obstacle they had to overcome.
“We were told the road north was cut off, but the road south led us too close to Fukushima,” he said, referring to the nuclear power plants. “We didn’t want to die of radiation so we headed onto the back roads of the Miyagi Mountains, which 
were all covered in snow. It was a beautiful sight. It looked like Switzerland, but all I was thinking about was how one aftershock could set off an avalanche or a boulder and then we’d be done for, either on the spot or buried alive. As much as we wanted to get out of there, instead of driving fast the whole time we were driving 50 kilometers an hour to get the most mileage out of our gas.”
They drove for several hours nonstop, hoping they wouldn’t run out of gas. Down to a few liters in their tank, they arrived at a dam high in the mountains where they asked a crew of construction workers how far they were from the nearest working gas station.
“When a construction worker said we were only a few kilometers away, we started to celebrate,” Milis said. “I almost kissed him.”
Looking back, Meirson’s heart goes out to those who remain there without a roof over their heads.
“People there are fighting for their lives,” he said. “If the earthquake and tsunami didn’t get them, the cold and hunger will.”
Reporters diary: Tempest in a teapot?
My long and tortuous journey began last Monday when matters in Japan, which had been struck by a whopping 9.0 magnitude earthquake followed by an even more devastating tsunami, went from bad to worse. A series of explosions at the battered Fukushima nuclear power plant 190 kilometers north of Tokyo raised deep concerns that a full meltdown was in progress. Despite repeated claims by the Japanese that the situation was under control, blasts rocked the reactors one by one and worrying increases in radiation were detected.
The earthquake and tsunami which hammered the northeast coast were horrific and are estimated to have killed 20,000 people and left hundreds of thousands homeless.
But truly tragic as they were, such destruction is unfortunately not unheard of in our disaster- prone world: In 2004 a tsunami killed more than 220,000 people along the shores of the Indian Ocean and last year some 250,000 died in an earthquake in Haiti.
But a nuclear meltdown? With radiation and so on? Not since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster had the world seen anything like this.
Who knows what unthinkable catastrophic effects – the evacuation of Tokyo, the collapse of the world economy – something like that might have? My journalistic curiosity was piqued, so I pitched my editors the idea of covering the story, gave a budget proposal and to my surprise they agreed. I threw a few things into a backpack and less than 20 hours later I was on a Hong Kong-bound flight en route to the Land of the Rising Sun.
Before my departure, friends and family bid me farewell in dark tones.
“Bring your hazmat suit,” a friend wrote on my Facebook wall.
“Look for the closest nuclear fallout shelter,” wrote another.
I was expecting nothing but the worst, a country in total disarray, so I brought with me a stash of energy bars and a bottle of water, and cursed myself for forgetting my flashlight. Come what may, I was ready.
The first sign that I wasn’t about to land in Mogadishu came when I boarded the plane to Osaka in Hong Kong. There was no sign of Australian mercenaries, Dr. Strangelove-type nuclear scientists or Anderson Cooper wanna-bes (with the exception of myself, of course). Instead, it was near capacity with middle-aged Japanese businessmen in gray suits, polite housewives and two brave Westerners.
“I’m not worried about radiation, which is in the north,” said Koki Homma, an academic who lives outside Kyoto, as I listened incredulously. “Osaka is safe. There are no power outages. In Tokyo, however, the situation is different.”
Oh poor, dear Homma, putting on such a brave face for appearance’s sake.
But when I landed in Kansai airport, it turned out he was right. With the exception of my hotel, which was swarming with Westerners and some Japanese who hurriedly fled Tokyo, there were no overt signs the country was experiencing its worst crisis since World War II.
Looking at the scenes of normalcy around me, I came to the conclusion on Friday that writing about the nuclear crisis in Osaka was like trying to cover a war between Israel and Lebanon from Cyprus. If I wanted to know what was happening I’d have to find out for myself, so I bought a train ticket to Tokyo for the next day.
The sleek Shinkansen bullet train to Tokyo with its distinct porpoise-shaped nose whisked past the pleasant Japanese countryside on Saturday morning, taking me toward the capital at speeds of up to 300 kilometers an hour. On the way I caught a glimpse of a snowcapped Mount Fuji, the perfectly coneshaped volcano whose deceptive beauty is a reminder that Japan sits atop a violently active tectonic plate.
A friendly executive named Takeshi Koga sat down beside me, probably with the intent of brushing up his English, and we chatted about the situation.
“My wife asked me to bring a sack of rice,” the bespectacled Koga said, pointing at his bulging suitcase. “She said you have to stand in line if you want to buy some foods in Tokyo, so I have brought with me rice and eggs from Osaka.”
Koga said there were some food shortages, blackouts and disrupted train service in the capital, but he reassured me emphatically waving his hands in the air that there was no danger of radiation.
“The International Atomic Energy Agency said everything is okay,” he insisted and smiled.
Upon arrival I discovered Tokyo was far from its usual self, but it wasn’t a ghost town.
The downtown business district of Shinjuku was shrouded in unusual darkness right after dusk. In an effort to conserve energy, now in great undersupply with the absence of output from the Fukushima nuclear plant, stores opened late and closed early and the famous neon lights and ubiquitous jumbo screens were dimmed. By 9 p.m. the streets were deserted and an informal curfew was in place.
That first night I was greeted by a 6.1 earthquake, which shook the lamp hanging from the ceiling in the apartment where I was staying and rattled the kitchenware for a few seconds.
During the day, however, it was hard to notice anything was amiss. Food was once again in abundance at the supermarkets, which displayed row after row of meat, dairy and vegetable products. The only shortage was of non-perishable foods that one can store in case of emergency.
Furthermore, I learned that the vast majority of the metropolitan area’s 30 million residents had not left and had no plans to. The hysteria at the local airport over the previous few days was mostly of expatriates and some Japanese who had the luxury to leave at will.
Most locals had jobs and the city was still very much a functioning one, albeit at a slower and sadder pace.