On the Ground: The Jewish Community of Japan

A boy walks through the rubble in Rikuzentakata, northern Japan after the magnitude 8.9 earthquake and tsunami struck the area REUTERS/Toru Hanai; courtesy Trust.org

As more harrowing news is coming out of Japan about the risks of multiple nuclear meltdowns and the dire humanitarian situation caused by the tsunami, cautious and hopeful notes are being sounded by the Jewish Community of Japan, one of the two main representative bodies (together with Chabad) of organized Jewish life in Tokyo.

“The Japanese are a resilient people and I am one hundred percent confident they will bounce back from this and be stronger than they were before,” said Philip Rosenfeld, the 47-year old treasurer of the Jewish Community of Japan and owner of JapanQuest Journeys, a boutique firm that specializes in customized luxury journeys to Japan.

Within 24 hours of the crisis, the Jewish Community of Japan was at the center of relief efforts. Together with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the Community is working with JEN, a Japanese NGO specializing in disaster relief work.

“Up north, it is what you see on the news and the coast is devastated. In geographical scale and scope, it’s a major effort to bring supplies in and search for survivors. The process of providing aid is very challenging. The weather in the north is very harsh and people are still desperate for basic supplies – food, shelter, medical aid, etc.,” says Rosenfeld.

Even with those challenges, JEN is currently operating in the Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, which were the hardest hit by the tsunami. While generally they focus on shelter reconstruction, support of the socially vulnerable and emergency supply distribution, they are currently providing emergency supplies include food, hygiene products, and other material needs in the affected areas. They have previous earthquake relief experience in Japan following the 2004 Chuetsu Earthquake in Niigata and 2007 Chuetsu Oki Earthquake.

“Miyagi and Fukushima Prefectures are largely rural where income is mainly derived from agriculture, fishing and light manufacturing. It is a beautiful area, but decimated,” says Rosenfeld, who has lived in Japan for 16 years and has two children, 16 and 13, with his Japanese wife.

Though Tokyo has gone mostly unscathed during the crisis, Rosenfeld notes that everyone is making sacrifices and doing all they can to help, including the Jewish Community of Japan. Mostly made up of American, European and Israeli Jews, the community has a thriving Sunday School, is open to all, and warmly embraces Jewish life in this part of Asia. “Considering where we are in the world, it’s great to have a place to call home, a place to belong,” says Rosenfeld.

Because of the community’s cohesiveness and network, it was able to quickly be in touch internally and overseas for help in the wake of the disasters. That’s when JDC, the global humanitarian aid organization which had previously worked in the region after the Indian Ocean Tsunami, came into the picture by making contact with the community.

As recovery efforts unfold and uncertainty abounds on the fate of Japan’s damaged nuclear facilities, Rosenfeld notes that continued aid is very important. “People are in desperate need of assistance – whether it is from the Jewish community or others overseas. And even though I am not Japanese, on behalf of the Japanese people, I want to thank those who have reached out and helped.”

And what of the possible nuclear crisis that is looming?

“I am, of course, no expert on these issues but we hope that this resolves as quickly as possible,” says Rosenfeld. “The fortitude of the Japanese people is outstanding. They will get through this crisis, stronger than they were before.”

Asian Jewish Life and eJewish Philanthropy are partnering together, leveraging our global contacts, to bring first-hand information on how the Jewish/Israeli world is responding on the ground in the aftermath of the Japanese quake. For more, see Japanese earthquake updates.