On Tuesday, during a five-day trip to Japan, Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu took part in a special task: He inscribed the first letters of a new Sefer Torah for the Jewish community of Tokyo.
Netanyahu’s trip to Japan included meetings with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Emperor Akihito, and visits to Japanese technology companies such as Panasonic Corp. Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, and 19-year-old son, Avner, traveled with him.
Rabbi Mendi and Chana Sudakevich, co-directors of Chabad Lubavitch of Tokyo-Japan, learned of Netanyahu’s visit when they were asked by his staff to arrange kosher food for some members of the Israeli delegation. They prepared 200 sandwiches, along with cakes, cookies and snacks for each day of the delegation’s visit, delivering the food to premier Abe’s home, the Parliament building and other official locations.
The Sudakeviches arrived in Tokyo in 1998, setting up a Chabad House to serve the some 2,000 Jews who live in the metropolis. In recent years, they have inaugurated both a new synagogue and a mikvah, and plans are underway to open a kosher restaurant.
But the community still has just one Torah, making it difficult during Shabbat and holiday services that require reading from more than one scroll. The community decided to embark on writing a new Torah scroll, a project that can take over a year and cost around $20,000.
When the rabbi learned that Netanyahu would be visiting Tokyo, he decided to ask the Israeli prime minister for a special favor: to write the first letters of the new Sefer Torah.
“We didn’t actually know whether we’d be able to meet with Netanyahu until Tuesday afternoon,” says Sudakevich. When Netanyahu’s staff gave them clearance to meet with Israeli leader and to bring the scroll, they were thrilled.
On Tuesday evening, the Sudakeviches joined Netanyahu at the historic Imperial Hotel in downtown Tokyo. Also in attendance were longtime Tokyo community members David Leibowitz and Yitzhak Medan; Rabbi Shmuel Vishedsky, who leads congregation Ohel Shlomo in Kobe, Japan, and serves as Chabad emissary to the community there with his wife, Batya; and Ari Harow, Netanyahu’s chief of staff.
Netanyahu, Sudakevich and the other attendees sat together at a long table, flanked by the Japanese and Israeli flags. After ritually washing his hands, Netanyahu took up the quill and inked the first letter on the parchment: the Hebrew letter bet, beginning the word Bereishit.
Rabbi Sudakevich says he shared insights with the prime minister about the significance of the first letter of the Torah.
“Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai explains that the Torah begins with the letter bet because it represents bracha (blessing).”
Sudakevich says it was particularly fitting for Netanyahu to write the first letter because his first name, Benjamin, also begins with bet. He also wrote the letter shin, in honor of his wife, Sara.
With the writing finished, the Sudakeviches and others had a chance to chat with Netanyahu, who asked questions about the Jewish community of Tokyo and the history of Jews in Japan.
“He was extremely friendly. He chatted with us for about half-an-hour-talking, laughing and telling jokes.”
Sudakevich says Netanyahu shared a story about his 1984 meeting with the Rebbe-Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory-when Netanyahu was the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations. He said the Rebbe exhorted him to “light a candle for truth and for the Jewish people.”
Sudakevich says their meeting with him, and his participation in writing the Torah scroll, marked a special moment for them. “We’re very proud that he chose to visit us. We’re a small community, and it’s a strong recognition.”