Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Baking Hamentaschen in Shichigahama: reactions to the Japanese earthquake

This is a modified version of an email that I sent to my congregation yesterday.

The news reports of the damage from the earthquake and tsunami in Japan just keep going from bad to worse to unimaginable -- with the death toll now revised at over 10,000, several villages and cities reduced to rubble, and the possibility of nuclear disaster.

David H., a member of our synagogue, has numerous direct connections to this tragedy and asked me to send the following reflections to you.  David lived and worked for many years in the town of Shichigahama, in the area that was hardest hit by the tsunami.  This town of more than 20,000 inhabitants is now mostly destroyed.    David's words help to communicate in very personal terms how devastating this situation is.  Below David's remarks are some suggestions for how we can assist.  (If you wish to contact David, you may contact him through me.)


By now, I am sure you have seen the horrific and terrifying images of the disaster that occurred in Northern Japan on 3/11. Whereas I am very thankful that my wife’s family lives in the southern island of Japan and was unaffected by the earthquake and Tsunami, I have a very deep personal connection to the affected region.  I want to share some thoughts with you in hopes of painting a picture of picture of a place and a people that I know seems very distant and unrelated to our daily lives as Jews and as part of the Hoboken community.  In doing so, I hope that you will see some of the connections we share with Japanese and be moved to support them in this time of their most dire need.

From 1998-2001 I was privileged to be employed by the Japanese government as a Coordinator of International Relations (CIR) on the JET Program.  You may be surprised to hear that the Japanese government through the JET Program is one of the largest single employers of American college graduates in a single foreign country.  This is only one of many Japanese sponsored initiatives that represent Japanese openness and generosity to furthering peaceful international relations.

What may further surprise you is that Japan also has a long history of supporting the Jews and Israel. Japan was one of the earliest nations to recognize Israel as a state.  In Japanese-occupied China, Jews were allowed to practice religion freely, and historians continue to discuss and debate the possibility that Japan was willing to spare the Jews of Europe in what is known as the Fugu Plan.  Chiune Sugihara, the Japanse consul to Lithuania,  spared the lives of thousands of Jews (and saved the renowned institution of Jewish learning, the Mir Yeshiva) by  issuing exit visas via Japan to China during the war.   Again, I could go on and on.

 For my three years on the JET Program, I lived, worked and represented small coastal community of Shichigahama in Miyagi prefecture.  My responsibility there was to promote grassroots culture, sports and economic exchange.  Japan is often characterized as a “closed society” -- but you must know that this just isn’t the case. People often asked how I could survive in rural Japan keeping kosher, and I can tell you it was because every one of my colleagues and neighbors knew just what I could and couldn’t eat, and they unconditionally assured that there was something at the table for me, whether it be a working lunch or a festive banquet.  Participants in the international and English clubs that I ran there -- a wide range of professionals and housewives --  reveled at the opportunity to cook Hammentashen on Purim.  At Hannukah, I made the rounds of Shichigahama’s three elementary schools to help the kids make latkes, and the holiday was built into the curriculum accordingly.  

At our wedding in Tokyo in 2005, 40 of my Shichigahama friends travelled the 250 miles so they could experience a Jewish wedding first hand, donning yarmulkes and dancing the hora.  At the reception, they enjoyed individual challahs, that were prepared as a surprise for us by Izaki-san, an 80 year old woman who has spent half her life as the chief cook of the JCC in Tokyo.  When I visited Shichigahama in December 2010 for the first time in almost a decade, my colleague immediately displayed my wedding photo on his cell phone from 5 years prior, still fascinated by the experience.

I can’t tell you how helpless I feel now, seeing images of what has happed in Sendai, a place as familiar to me as Hoboken. Andersen Cooper stood on top of 10 feet of debris in front of the very market in Shichigahama where I did my daily shopping. Ishinomaki  and Kessenuma, towns that have been reduced to rubble,  are the places  I would go on the weekends to watch movies or visit friends. My friend Yuko said her uncle clung for life as he watched his wife and his house wash away.  Friends who were of good means and wealthy communities now write that they are without food, water or heat. I haven’t been able to get through to people  are closer to me than people I grew up with. 

This is not the first disaster that needs our assistance and there continue to be many other worthy causes that demand our attention.  But now, more than ever, the people of Sendai and of Shichigahama need us.  I hope you will understand from what I have shared, that Japan is much closer than you think.

David H.


There are a number of ways that the American Jewish community can assist at a time of tragedy like this.  The following are four organizations that are collecting funds now, which you could consider among the many organizations engaged in disaster relief. 

Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief:  (a coalition of many American Jewish organizations that channels donations to reputable organizations working on the ground after disasters)

Jewish Federations of North America:

IsraAid:  Israel Forum for International Humanitarian Aid:  Israeli non-governmental organization for disaster relief --

The Jewish Community Center of Japan is collecting funds for distribution as well -- see -- but please note that the bank wire transfer fees for foreign currencies are very high.

David also mentioned to me that there is a Facebook page for "Friends of Shichigahama" on which additional updates may be posted regarding ways to assist.

We pray for recovery for all the injured, comfort for all the bereaved, and for all those affected by this tragedy, the strength to begin again.