I never knew Japan could be so hilly along the coast. My legs were killing me. We had been walking around for hours looking for the beautiful Sorakuen Gardens, our final stop before heading back to the port in Kobe. We were lost. Frustrated. Tired. Then my husband and I started blaming one another which ‘left’ and ‘right’ we should or should not have taken. Finally, giving up the blame game, and desperate for directions, we knew our only hope was to find someone who hopefully might speak a little English. Enough to get directions anyway.
As we were about to try to find our way back to the ship, we suddenly saw in the distance across the narrow street a man scurrying along at a fast pace dressed in familiar garments that suggested he might just be a rabbi. Arthur and I looked at one another with the same desperate thought. We turned and literally ran after him, cameras flopping against our chests, “Dear God, please let him speak English!”
Well, that was the beginning of the most interesting adventure in Kobe. Much better than a stroll through another garden we had seen many of on our many world tours.
Rabbi Shmuel Vishedsky, turned out to speak English, was in his late twenties and from Israel, and upon hearing our plight invited us to visit his temple. Anything to get off my feet, I thought.
He walked us up the hill to Ohel Shelomoh, his temple.
Getting lost turned out to be an interesting day filled with history. We learned from Shmuel about his life in Kobe, Kobe itself, his temple and the early migration of the Jewish settlement there and the earthquake in 1995 that almost destroyed it all.
Even though we had been to Kobe before, we had no clue Kobe has a very rich Jewish history. We would have never known about any of this had we not met him. The city was and continues to be one of Japan’s major ports, and a turning point in Kobe’s history took place when its port opened its doors for trade with the West in 1868. We were told Jewish traders most likely ventured into Kobe for trade purposes during this time, settling in Kobe. The Rabbi showed us with pride the beautiful carved chairs donated by the Jewish traders more than a century ago. Most are now empty during services.
The first Jews arrived in Kobe around the turn of the 20th century. Up until World War II, Jews flocked to the port city from Poland, Russia, Germany, and the Middle East due to its wealth and trading opportunities and the temples flourished.
As was often the case in Jewish history, Jews were predominantly involved in mercantile businesses because of limitations imposed upon them by their home countries, and working in trade allowed them to prosper without settling down.
By 1941, there were two separate synagogues in Kobe, one for the Ashkenazim and another for the Sephardim. During World War II, the Sephardic synagogue burnt down as the result of an American air raid, and the Ashkenazim shared their space with the Sephardic community. It is this synagogue that serves to small community of 17 to 20 Jews who are comprised of those working in Japan teaching English and a small group of permanent residents.
The Rabbi showed us where there were still minor cracks in the walls, and evidence where the earthquake of 1995 did other major structural damage to the building. But, with reverence, he also showed where the tablets showing the commandments above the Ark were not touched by the quake as though saved by the Hand of God.
I thought, in a way, knowing his thirst for biblical knowledge makes him happy, but because of his dedicated religious beliefs what an isolated life he and his wife and young child had here in Kobe. We stayed around for a while because Shmuel was so anxious for us to meet his wife and child who had been out for the day.
Unfortunately, time would not allow that, so we had to say goodbye to our interesting host without meeting his family. He seemed disappointed that we couldn’t stay, but so pleased at our chance encounter in the streets of his adopted city.
We were like a voice from home I think, and it turned out he was just as delighted to see us English speaking Americans as we him. And I do believe in this life there are no chance encounters. Each has its meaning and purpose.
Copyright 2014 Sandra Hart. All rights reserved.