The Ohel Shelomo Synagogue in Kobe, Japan

Ezra Yehezkel-Shaked

Itsumu Sato, my Japanese friend, studies Jewish subjects at a university in Tokyo. She maintains social and professional contacts with Jews in Japan and elsewhere. On one of her many trips to Israel she asked to see the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center; there she was welcomed by Ms. Ruth Attar, who accompanied her on her visit. Itsumu returned to Japan, and sent me a letter full of wonder at what she had seen and heard. In winter 1995 Kobe was struck by a violent earthquake, causing great destruction in the city; one of the damaged buildings was the Ohel Shelomo Synagogue.

Itsumu visited the synagogue, and immediately sent me a letter and pictures showing the destruction in it. She told me that the parnasim of the synagogue, who live in the Kansai district, were in search of Jewish contributors worldwide to help repair the damage.

Ohel Shelomo was founded with great ceremony in 1937. Among the worshippers there were the Battat, Somekh, Tweig, and Tawil families and others. The members of these families had travelled to Japan and settled in Kobe, a port city. They engaged in commerce, which flourished with Japan after the World Jewish Congress imposed a ban on trading ties with Nazi Germany. The first of the Babylonian Jews arrived in the Land of the Rising Sun in the footsteps of Yehezkel, the agent of Elias Sassoon. Yehezkel was the first Jew to step onto Japanese soil in modern times. His journey was intended to check the commercial potential of Japan after its opening to the West by the Americans in the mid-nineteenth century. In the 1930s two Jewish communities consolidated in Kobe, one Sepharadi and one Ashkenazi. The Ashkenazim reached Japan following the pogroms unleashed against the Jews in Odessa and Kishinev. Relations between the two communities were cool, but the Ashkenazim nevertheless attended the Sepharadi synagogue on the Sukkot festival to offer the blessing of the Four Species. After doing so, they returned to their own synagogue to pray. The Four Species were brought each year to Japan from Shanghai on the eve of the festival. Rabbi Reuven Avraham took pains to grow many plants introduced from Eretz Israel. Tens of Chinese gardners tended the gardens and the lawns, which witnessed much Jewish and Zionist activity. It was common knowledge among the Shanghai Jews that Reuven Abraham's sukkah was outstanding in its beauty, and had no like in China.

When thousands of Jews fled from burning Europe and found safe haven with the Babylonian communities in China, yeshiva students from Poland received the Four Species from the gardens of Rabbi Reuven. They were suffused with elevation of spirit when they realized that the plants had been brought from the Holy Land. The forecourt of the Ohel Shelomo Synagogue in Kobe too was planted with myrtle (hadas) shoots, which served the worshippers for the Havdalah prayer. These plants grew high, and they adorn the synagogue yard to the present day. Many have visited this synagogue, which has become a sought-after tourist site. In World War II the synagogue was hit by a bomb dropped by attacking US aircraft. It was rapidly repaired, and many worshippers, including US servicemen, entered its portals.