When Temple Beth Am of Los Angeles extended a konnichi wa during Saturday services to its Japanese visitors, they answered "Shabbat shalom."
Small Hands, a group of Japanese goodwill ambassadors, ages 12-18, offered a cultural exchange on its July 26 visit. The Conservative synagogue was one of several spots on Small Hands' July 23-26 Southern California tour under the auspices of the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles.
The teen group, formed in 1997 by the Holocaust Education Center of Japan, has dedicated itself to learning about the horrors of the Holocaust and gleaning from it a cross-cultural message of peace, which it promotes.
Dressed in traditional kimonos, the 15-member Small Hands group performed before a packed sanctuary a medley of traditional Japanese songs -- "Twinkling Stars," "Fireflies" and "Ocean" -- before performing enthusiastic versions of "Havenu Sholom Alechem," "David Melech Israel" and "Oseh Shalom" in Hebrew. After, seven female members performed a native sakura ("cherry blossoms") dance.
The Rev. Makoto Otsuka, director general of Japan's Holocaust Education Center, founded the museum, which focuses on the 1.5 million children murdered by the Nazis. He believes that this aspect of the Holocaust is a window into the Shoah for today's children.
He told The Journal that his inspiration was a chance 1971 encounter in Israel with Anne Frank's father, whom he met while performing in with a Christian choir. Since opening its doors in June 1995, the Holocaust Education Center -- located in Fukuyama, just outside Hiroshima -- has had 60,000 visitors. Otsuka said that reaching beyond Japan's 2,000 Jews -- through schoolchildren -- is his museum's goal.
Otsuka's daughter, Masami, translated for Small Hands members Kanami Kanbara and Michinobu Iwamoto, both 16. Kanbara said that Small Hands fits nicely with her ambition to learn languages and work with other cultures. Iwamoto spoke highly of his first tour of California. His personal highlight -- without hesitation -- Disneyland.
Other stops on Small Hands' itinerary included: the Museum of Tolerance; Camp Alonim; the Jewish Home for the Aging; a meeting with Imperial Toys founder/Holocaust survivor Fred Kort; and a San Diego visit with university lecturer/Holocaust survivor Dr. John Stoessinger, who is one of the thousands of Jews saved in World War II by Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul-general in Nazi-occupied Lithuania.
For information on the Holocaust Education Center, visit www.urban.ne.jp/home/hecjpn .