Empathy, Support and Japan’s Outpouring of Appreciation

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04 May 2011

Maybe it wasn’t expected, but within hours of the March 11th earthquake that rocked Japan, the Orthodox Union had organized a relief fund. It was a basic humanitarian gesture, and immediately following that, a professional gesture: Rabbi Menachem Genack, rabbinic administrator of the OU’s kashrut division since 1980, drafted a “Letter of our Feelings and Prayers for the People of Japan”, expressing empathy and concern for clients during a time of overwhelming catastrophe.

What certainly wasn’t expected was the immediate outpouring of grateful letters that came flooding back in. The rapid and deeply appreciative responses were both moving and eloquent, especially given the timing; an entire nation was operating in a state of chaos and crisis.

Several Japanese correspondents wrote* in particular detail:

Dear Rabbi,

Thank you very much for your kind and warm messages. Our staff is now safe, and we will try to recover from this disasater. We have some damage in our plant facilities, since it is close to epicenter, but would hope to overcome this situation by cooperating each other.

Following our recovery, we would like to meet with the OU staff again, on location. We thank you for OU’s establishment of a fund for Japanese people. We always keep in mind that we are not alone, and greatly appreciate your kind support.

Thank you again for your message.

Dear Rabbi,

It has been already two weeks since the giant earthquake, tsunami, and exposure of the nuclear power plant in Fukushima.
Of course, our life has drastically changed since then in both dark and light ways.

A medical team from Israel, the first medical team from overseas, has begun to operate its mobile hospital in Minami Sanriku where 7,000 people were estimated to be missing. It is widely welcomed throughout the nation. I have had a chance to walk with its initial investigation team, from north to south, along thePacific Ocean where the tsunami killed more than 15,000 people in our county.

I, together with my friends, admire the brave challenge of the Israeli team. There are many foreign teams who want to come into Japan however it is difficult to do so because of the system and structure of our country. It is thanks to the very strong and straightforward leadership of Ambassador Nissim Ben Shitrit (Israel’s Embassy for Japan) and his counterpart Ambassador Takeuchi (Japanese Embassy in Tel Aviv), that we could have this happen.

Jews certainly know not only own difficulty, but also real sadness, and the pain of others, etc. I want to tell you it is not only Israeli, but also American, and other medical/rescue teams who are still willing to enter this difficult area. I hope we could really have these loves blossom in our sky.

Our beautiful Sendai Airport, that many of my friends know, is totally destroyed and we saw thousands of vehicles in that area ruined as well; we even watched several airplanes drifting from a runaway. One friend, who supports the imports and exports of our company, was able to escape. He was in the 2nd floor of the building and went up to the third floor, instead of going out to run away. He told me that younger staff members (who tried to escape in cars) were killed in the tsunami.

He was fortunate enough to escape from the first Tsunami. Then, he decided to move out of his building and move to the main airport building, where he spent a week before being rescued. He told me that as soon as he escaped from the first building, there was another tsunami; he watched his car explode in front of his eyes. Eventually my friend made it to Tokyo, where he is originally from, but in the end he decided to come back to Sendai to help its recovery.

My son was much impressed by the love and encouraging calls from customers throughout Japan… it warms our hearts to know we have so many friends overseas. We thank you for the OU’s establishment of a fund for the Japanese people. We always keep in mind that we are not alone, and are very appreciate your kind support.

Dear Rabbi,

Thank you for expressing your continued concern for us.

We were quite shocked with a second round of earthquakes; four weeks of recovery efforts were made in vain. We received additional physical damage to our houses, buildings and various life lines such as electricity, water, and gas were lost again. Our spirits are bent. It looks like our plant will not start as planned (at the end of April), as lack of utilities seem to continue.

Our economy is getting worse, and many of friends have decided to close their businesses. Our business, in general, has dropped by 50~70% during the last four weeks.

On the other hand, I saw blessings of the Creator here– foreign friends continue to give us help despite this difficult situation.

Last night, I was honored to be invited as one of main guests of the Israeli Medical Team for its Shabbat dinner. The team, as you well know, has been in Minami Sanriku, 70 kilometers northeast of us, to rescue people in the area. It has been four weeks since Israel’s Embassy to Japan offered several forms of aid to Japan, and our local government finally accepted the 60 medical members which Israel successfully launched on March 29th. The team is about to finish its mission.

I am very proud to say that the Israeli team has not only contributed to saving people’s lives, but has also played a major role in showing the real “Hara and Kokoro” (courage and heart) of Jews towards the Japanese people via our main medias. Over 120 people from all parts of Japan wrote letters of thanks to them, including myself. I am sure these efforts will contribute towards the building of positive, long-term relationships among Japanese, Jews and Israel.

I also want to note that a Turkish rescue team spent nearly 20 days here helping with recovery efforts. In 1890, an Ottoman navy boat encountered a typhoon off the coast of Wakayama Prefecture, and subsequently drifted into a reef and sank. The maritime accident resulted in the loss of 533 sailors; 69 sailors and officers survived and returned home later aboard two Japanese corvettes. The event is still commemorated as a foundation stone of the Japanese-Turkish friendship.

American soldiers continue to devote massive forces under “Operation Tomodachi (Friends)” to rescue and reconstruct areas hit by the Tsunami. They have been rebuilding Sendai Airport, many schools, and so forth. Thanks to them, we will be able to start flights to Tokyo and Osaka by the end of next week, which gives hope to people here (it is the only access out from Sendai, otherwise people must drive through Fukushima which is plagued by radioactivity).

In my garden, the flowers of three plum trees have begun to bloom in red and white. Plum blossoms have five petals and are said to be the “Trees of Man or Fire”. On the other hand, cherry blossoms have four petals and said to be the “Trees of Woman or Water”. The flowers of our cherry tress are expected to bloom in a week. I was also amazed to see that the Japanese killifish in my ponds, which had been covered with thick ice, have started to swim about.

The OU’s chief operating officer, David Frankel, who was responsible for overseeing the establishment of the Earthquake Relief Fund for Japan, and within 48 hours, the Victims of Terrorism Fund (as a response to the Itamar massacre of the Fogel Family) articulated the crystal clear perspective:

The enormity of the tragedy that happened in Japan is so extraordinary that for the Jewish community not to have an outpouring of support would not only be a denial of one of our primary obligations to care for everyone in their time of need, but also a missed opportunity to honor the memory of Chiune Sugihara — the Japanese consul general to Lithuania who in 1940 helped save at least 6,000 Lithuanian Jews from the hands of the Nazis by getting them transit visas to Japan.

The Japanese community helped us in our time of need; this is our way to help them in their time of need. We can never repay the debt, but this is the right thing to do.”

The OU wishes to extend it’s deep appreciation to all the many contributors who gave their generous support during times of crisis and catastrophe. 

*edited for grammar, syntax, etc…

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.