B'NAI B'RITH TODAY
First-Person Account: Kakehashi Project
By Katherine Dolgenos
Tsuruga’s mayor met with our delegation and described his city as a welcoming place for outsiders. Back row, left to right: Assistant Director of Donor Services Richy Leitner, Tyler Baram, Daniel Horn, Ali Cohen, Deputy Director of the B’nai B’rith International Center for Human Rights and Public Policy and Director of Legislative Affairs/Trip Leader Eric Fusfield, Gidon Feen. Front row, left to right: Jeffrey Greenberg, Media Relations Associate Katherine Dolgenos, David Magida, Logan Tessler, Alixandra Buckelew, Mayor of Tsuruga Takanobu Fuchikami, Randi Sabbagh, Leyla Eraybar, Mary Ann Weiss.
This February, I was honored to participate in the B’nai B’rith Young Leadership Network’s 2019 mission to Japan as part of the Kakehashi (Building Bridges) Project, a Japanese government-run program that aims to increase the number of tourists who visit Japan annually and promote the country’s image abroad. Our delegation was comprised of 11 Jewish young professionals, as well as three B’nai B’rith International staff members. As deputy leader of the trip, I was mindful of the need to represent B’nai B’rith well in an official international setting. But as a 24-year-old traveling to Japan for the first time, I was just thrilled to be there!
Our first full day in Tokyo was jam-packed with meetings and official engagements. We paid a visit to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where we heard a lecture on the relationship between Japan and Israel and were given the opportunity to ask questions. From the Japanese perspective, we received a thorough overview of both historical Japan-Israel relations, which officially started after the end of the postwar occupation of Japan in 1952, and the modern-day economic ties that increasingly bind the two countries.
The lecture and Q&A were followed by a courtesy call on Ambassador Hideo Sato, a Japanese diplomat and longtime advocate of closer relations with Israel. During his time in the foreign ministry, Sato served four times in Israel, including a stint as ambassador to Israel from 2011 to 2014. He told us about the beginnings of his affinity for Israel, in the 1970s, when he moved there with his wife and studied for his master’s degree in Tel Aviv before being recruited to the Japanese Foreign Ministry.
After hearing about Israel-Japan relations from a Japanese point of view, it was intriguing to visit the Embassy of Israel and discuss the same topics from an Israeli lens. We met with Deputy Chief of Mission Irit Savion Waidergorn and Head of Public Affairs and Spokesperson Jonathan Lebel, who were also eager to discuss Japan and Israel’s burgeoning economic ties, including both countries’ efforts to start direct flights between Tel Aviv and Tokyo.
From Tokyo, we continued on to the small town of Yaotsu in Gifu Prefecture. We were greeted there by the mayor at Yaotsu Town Hall, who gave us a brief introduction to his town with the assistance of a translator. Afterward, we visited the Chiune Sugihara Memorial Hall, a museum focused on Chiune Sugihara, Japan’s only Righteous Among the Nations. Sugihara was a Japanese diplomat who was stationed in Lithuania during World War II. He used his position to illicitly issue transit visas to thousands of Jews, even those who did not meet the legal requirements for the visas, who were only able to travel through Siberia and escape the carnage in Europe if they had transit documents allowing them into Japan. He is credited with rescuing about 6,000 Jews in just a few weeks of issuing visas.
Visiting Japan was an unforgettable travel experience, but more than that, it was a chance to represent B’nai B’rith abroad. B’nai B’rith International sends delegations all over the world to stand up for human rights, represent the Jewish people and engage in pro-Israel advocacy, and this was the first time I got to make a difference firsthand on one of our missions. I am grateful to the Kakehashi Project and our guides for giving us this opportunity and creating an incredible itinerary, and I am sure that everyone who participated in this trip will continue to build bridges between the American Jewish community and Japan.