Deadly Tsunami Appears to Have Spared Tokyo Jewish Community

by Joshua Runyan and Tamar Runyan

One year after the tsunami that wasn’t, a massive shockwave spawned by an afternoon 8.9 earthquake off the coast of Japan slammed into the island nation Friday with 13-foot seas and sent tourists and locals almost 4,000 miles away in Hawaii scrambling for higher ground.

With news outlets reporting that upwards of 300 people perished in the wall of water – as opposed to few in the quake itself – Japanese authorities warned that the death toll could likely rise. All over the world, friends and family members of anyone in the wave’s path, whether in Asia, in Pacific islands, or along a swath of North American coast stretching from Alaska’s Aleutian Islands to just north of Los Angeles, jammed phone lines to ascertain the condition of their loved ones.

Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries around the world received a report from Chabad of Hong Kong director Rabbi Mordechai Avtzon, relayed through Chabad of Thailand director Rabbi Yosef Kantor, that Tokyo’s Jewish community appeared to emerge from the tragedy relatively unscathed. Although details were sketchy, as the natural disasters struck just before the onset of the Jewish Sabbath, Avtzon said that Rabbi Mendel and Chana Sudakevich were okay.

Mendel Sudakevich “reported that while it was a terribly frightening experience, and objects within the homes [and] the Chabad House shifted and fell, there were minimal injuries in the area and that the Jewish community was thank G-d, safe and sound,” said Avtzon. “Approximately 15 minutes after we spoke, another strong earthquake struck greater Tokyo, triggering what appears to be a rather serious tsunami.”

Shortly afterwards, Kantor sent his own dispatch, an account of a conversation with Sudakevich’s father in Israel.

“Everyone is okay,” emphasized Kantor, who spearheaded local relief efforts after the Indian Ocean tsunami that killed more than 230,000 people in 2004. “He also assured me that the tsunami that was triggered did not affect the areas of Tokyo that Mendel and the main Jewish community lives in.”

In Hawaii, which received the first installments of a six-foot wave just after 3 a.m. local time Friday morning, resort hotels instituted so-called vertical evacuations and sent their guests to higher floors. Pearl Krasnjansky, the Honolulu-based co-director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Hawaii, said that while she and her family were safe, she was calling everyone she knew to make sure they had made it to higher ground.

“They’ve only evacuated people on the coastline,” said Krasnjansky, who a year ago lived through a false alarm triggered just before the Sabbath by an 8.8-magnitude earthquake in Chile. “Our Chabad House, though, is a block and a half inland. No one is there. We’re hoping everything is safe, the books, the Torah scrolls.”

A statement from the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Honolulu warned that the effects of a tsunami could last hours.

“Urgent action should be taken to protect lives and property,” it stated. “A tsunami is a series of long ocean waves. Each individual wave crest can last five to 15 minutes or more, and extensively flood coastal areas. The danger can continue for many hours after the initial wave as subsequent waves arrive.

“All shores are at risk,” it added.

On the Kailua Kona side of the island of Oahu, Krasnjansky’s daughter and son-in-law, Rabbi Avraham and Rivka Chazanow, who direct Chabad of the Big Island, were putting locals up at their house.

“We live on high-enough ground,” said Avraham Chazanow. “People received a little warning before this. It’s strange that it’s happening all over again.”

Krasnjansky said that rabbinical students that live on the edge of the danger zone in Honolulu evacuated to the home of her other daughter and son-in-law, Rabbi Dovid and Sari Tilson.

“We know some Israelis in Waikiki, but unfortunately because of everything going on, cell phones are spotty,” she said. “Streets were closed off at 2 a.m. We’re hoping everyone is able to ride this out.”

Practically the same message came from John Cummings III, spokesman for the Honolulu Department of Emergency Management.

“We’re preparing for the worst,” he told The Associated Press. “And we’re praying for the best.”

This article originally appeared in News; reprinted with permission.