The city of Kobe, Japan is located in a key position at the crossroads of the East and West, and the entrance to Japan’s Inland Sea. Because of this, it has been a significant port since the 1200s. Today, it is still one of the most significant port cities in the entire world, and one of the largest container ports. People have come to participate in Kobe’s commerce and industry from China, India, America, England, Korea, and Norway, among others. Because of this diverse population, it is also the home to an active and thriving Jewish community.
The first Jews arrived in Kobe shortly after 1862 when Japan was opened to Western commerce. By the late 1880s, about 50 Jewish families from all around the world were living in Yokohama. Later, a massive earthquake in Yokohama forced these families to move to Kobe, where they continued to work as merchants and in trade.
Well before World War II, there was a significant Jewish presence in Kobe. Trade brought both Sephardic Jews from Baghdad, Iraq, Syria, and Ashkenazic Jews from Poland and Russia. In addition, Russian Jews who were escaping the persecution of pogroms also found refuge in Kobe. The first synagogue in Kobe was established in a rented Japanese house. It served as the gathering place for prayer for the Sephardic Jews.
During WWII was when they population of Jews living in Kobe dramatically increased. Jews received good treatment from the government of Japan at this time, and were relatively well protected despite Japan’s alliance with Germany. Between 1940 and 1941, the city of Kobe took in and helped to save a significant number of Holocaust refugees. Although Japanese leaders at the time knew little of the Jewish religion and Jewish customs, they protected the refugees based on the belief that Jewish people were a significant and influential part of the world. Individual Japanese also helped to save the Jewish refugees for purely humanitarian reasons. One such person was Dr. Kotsuji Setsuzo, who had earned his doctorate in California, and was influential in allowing the Jewish refugees to settle in Kobe. The most famous and well-known Japanese
person who helped save Jewish lives from the Holocaust is Sugihara Sempo, the Japanese consul to Kaunas, Lithuania. During the summer of 1940, Sugihara issued transit visas to approximately 6,000 Jewish refugees from both Poland and Lithuania. The visas allowed the fleeing Jews to take the Trans-Siberian railway to Vladivostok, and to sail from there to the Japan.
During the war, the synagogue in Kobe was burned down in an air raid by the United States. Today, you can visit a Jewish cemetery that is nearby the site where the original synagogue was located. Within the international cemetery are tombstones of people who came to Kobe from places all over the world, such as Holland, Russia, Syria, and the United States.
The presently used Jewish community center was built in 1970. It is located in the Kitano area, which is home to much of Kobe’s foreign architecture. This uniquely diverse area is also home to a Russian Orthodox church, a Moslem mosque, and a Catholic church. Despite the fact the many Jews have emigrated to Israel in past years, the community flourishes, offering both many social events and regular services. The synagogue is an orthodox one, allowing Jews of all orientations to participate in services and holidays. Every Shabbat all participants are invited to a full sit down kiddush complete with cholent, salads, challah, wine, and beer. Anyone who joins the kiddush might hear Japanese, Hebrew, English, French, German, and Persian all within the time span of one meal. This small group of approximately 70 people is one that is diverse, proud, and active.