In March, I was incredibly fortunate for the opportunity to travel and explore Japan with the B’nai B’rith Young Leadership Network, as we participated in the Kakehashi Project. The Kakehashi Project was created through the Japan International Cooperation Center (JICE), designed to build and strengthen ties between the U.S. and Japan. We were provided with a diverse itinerary that gave us a taste – both literally and figuratively – of a country rich in history, yet at the same time, at the forefront of modernization.
Immediately upon arriving in Japan, we were in awe of the beautiful country and culture. It was easy to feel welcomed in a society that places such a high value on respect and honor. No matter where we turned, the warmth of the Japanese people, and the depth of their culture and history embraced us. In Tokyo, we experienced firsthand what life in the largest city by population in the world is like.
Tokyo is home to the world’s largest fish market, the Tsukiji Market, where we were able to see, smell and taste the freshest sushi. At Ippodo Tea Company, we participated in a tea ceremony, learning how matcha tea is made and given the opportunity to make and taste tea ourselves.
In Kyoto, we explored cultural sites such as Kinkakuji, the Golden Pavilion, a Zen Buddhist temple and the Fushimi Inari Taisha, a shrine built in the eighth century. One afternoon, we rolled up our sleeves to hand dye handkerchiefs using a centuries-old Japanese technique called Yuzen.
While Japan’s history and culture make it unique, it certainly doesn’t hold it back from keeping up with modern times. From small conveniences in our hotel rooms, to the abundance of vending machines strewn about, it was clear that technology played a large role in day-to-day life. Our travels between Tokyo and Kyoto were via the Shinkansen, Japan’s bullet train. A trip that would have taken over six hours by car was a mere two and a half hours thanks to this high speed train. We also had the opportunity to spend an afternoon at the offices of Pasona, a career placement company with a dedication to inclusion. Here, we learned why securing jobs for all, especially for those with disabilities, is a priority and how it impacts their overall society.
One of the truly unique opportunities that the Kakehashi Project afforded us was the ability to meet with various government officials. On our first day, we met with representatives from the Japan-Middle East Division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We were briefed on Japan’s role in the peace process, and the projects they are supporting in different regions to help further advance peace. Only one day after Women’s International Day, we were invited to the home of Yaffa Ben-Ari, the Israeli ambassador to Japan. She shared with us her personal story of becoming the Israeli ambassador and why Israel-Japan relations are important on the global stage. Kentaro Sanoura, special advisor to the prime minister, took time to meet with us on our last day in Japan. He shared his thoughts on how the relationship between the U.S. and Japan are stronger than ever, and welcomed our questions and thoughts on Japan.
What made this trip so special was the ability to view Japan through a Jewish lens. We celebrated Shabbat at the Jewish Community of Japan, a non-denominational synagogue located in the heart of Tokyo. Even half way around the world, the familiar sounds and songs of Shabbat made us feel right at home. Together we sang Eliyahu HaNavi as Havdallah approached, and engaged in conversation as to what the trip meant to us as young leaders of B’nai B’rith. Throughout the trip, we made many parallels of our own traditions and to those of the Japanese people.
This once in a lifetime opportunity left a lasting impression on me, and my perspectives of Japan. The word “kakehashi” translates to “bridge” in Japanese, but a special type of bridge that connects two important and honored places. I could not think of a more fitting title to name this journey. Words alone could not encompass how thankful I am to the B’nai B’rith Young Leadership Network and the Kakehashi Project for this experience. I can’t wait to continue to building strong relations between the U.S. and Japan by sharing my experiences with others.
Laura Hemlock is a native New Yorker and currently works for UJA-Federation of New York as a Senior Donor Center Specialist. She holds a Masters degree in Education and a Bachelors in theatre, both obtained from the University at Buffalo. Passionate about all things Jewish and community, Laura is excited to be involved with B'nai B'rith Young Leadership Network. Laura also sits on the Meyerson JCC Manhattan's 20s&30s board.
It hardly mattered that few of the players representing Israel in the World Baseball Classic last month knew the Hebrew terms for balls and strikes. Nor did it cause concern that only two of them possessed Israeli citizenship.
What mattered was that the team, compromised mostly of American players of Jewish descent (persons who are eligible for Israeli citizenship could play for the team), willed and plucked its way to the second round of the international championship. In doing so, they captivated the baseball world and provided both Israeli and American fans with that most irresistible of all sports narratives: an underdog story.
Who were these guys? An compendium of has-beens and never-weres (only two of the team's players appeared on a Major League roster last year), Team Israel was ranked 41st in the world and tagged by ESPN as the "Jamaican bobsled team of the WBC." The ace of their pitching staff, 38-year-old Jason Marquis, hadn’t played organized baseball since June 2015. Catcher Ryan Lavarnway spent last season in the minor leagues with two different clubs, but as a Yale alumnus, he helped cement Team Israel’s place as the most educated squad in the WBC.
And yet they won—all three of their qualifying games, all three of their first round games, and a second round game against Cuba in the Tokyo Dome, witnessed by a visiting B'nai B'rith delegation waving Israeli flags and Purim groggers.
The players wore t-shirts that read "Jew Crew." During the pre-game playing of "HaTikvah," the Israeli national anthem, they would remove their game caps and don matching blue kippahs.
But what particularly captured the team ethos of cheekiness and unflappability was its designation of the kitschy life-sized doll "Mensch on a Bench" (the players called him Moshe) as the team's mascot. One player referred to Moshe as "a metaphysical presence" within the team.
They defeated more highly regarded squads from three different continents before succumbing to the Netherlands and Japan. What is also significant, though, is the fact that they competed on equal terms against teams who saw the matchup with Israel not as an opportunity to stoke Israel's political isolation—as is so often the case in international gatherings—but simply to play ball.
Israel's supporters view the Jewish state as blessedly unique, a source of intense pride. But what they want for Israel on the international stage is for it to be treated like any other country, subject to the same rules and standards. The WBC offered the Jewish community, and the world, a glimpse into a present and future in which Israel takes its rightful place among the nations and generates little controversy or backlash for doing so. No boycotts, no demonstrations, no extra security precautions. May the best team win.
Team Israel was a 200-1 underdog in 2017, but how can you not like their chances in the next WBC tournament, in 2021. 200-1? Feh. According to Mensch on a Bench creator Neal Hoffman, "We've faced worse."
Eric Fusfield, Esq. has been B’nai B’rith International’s director of legislative affairs since 2003 and deputy director of the B’nai B’rith International Center for Human Rights and Public Policy since 2007. He holds a B.A. from Columbia University in history; an M.St. in modern Jewish studies from Oxford University; and a J.D./M.A. from American University in law and international affairs. Click here to read more from Fusfield.
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