Japanese Hebrew chorus sees Jews as chosen people

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The choral group, the Shinonome Chorus (Makhelat Hashachar), is part of a Japanese religious movement called Beit Shalom (House of Peace) or Japan Christian Friends of Israel. Its followers are Christians who recognize Jews as the chosen people. Their mission is to pray for the Jewish people, peace in Jerusalem and the coming of the Messiah.

Israeli-born Nira Weiss of Pinole first encountered Beit Shalom years ago while traveling through the Far East. Recently, Weiss talked about Beit Shalom, showed a videotape of the Shinonome Chorus and played a cassette of one of their performances to an intrigued audience enjoying Sunday brunch at the Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center.

Beit Shalom's adherents neither want to convert Jews to Christianity nor convert to Judaism themselves, Weiss explained. Their goal is world peace, which they believe will come through the state of Israel and world Jewry.

Weiss stumbled upon Beit Shalom 13 years ago while she and her soon-to-be husband, Shimon, were planning their honeymoon to the Far East. The Israeli couple would be traveling with backpacks and on a shoestring budget, and in preparation for their trip they went to a Tel Aviv store for camping gear and supplies. At the store they perused journals in which travelers had recorded their experiences, advice, connections and other information for future adventurers. Here, Weiss discovered Beit Shalom.

She was surprised to learn that Beit Shalom offered three days of free room and board to Israeli travelers.

The price was right, so the couple decided to take advantage of the offer, not knowing what to expect.

They were delighted with the outcome. "It was a home far away from home," Weiss said of the hospitality they received in Japan. "I was overwhelmed with welcome and warmth."

Weiss, who has remained in contact with Beit Shalom followers and still feels close to the group, was surprised to see that many Beit Shalom followers displayed a Mogen David outside their homes, Judaica inside and photos of famous Israelis on the walls. In areas where Israeli guests are housed, all signs are in Hebrew. Some of the priests speak fluent Hebrew.

The religion's founder, Takeji Otsuki, had a revelation from God in 1938 when he was told to pray for peace in Jerusalem and for the Jewish people. Otsuki was also told that within 10 years there would be a Jewish state. Thus, Beit Shalom was born.

Although it got off to a slow start, today Beit Shalom has more than 100 churches and 10,000 followers in Japan. Otsuki, 91, who sermonized in the videotape, is passionate about his mission.

Followers of Beit Shalom do not observe Jewish holidays or practice Jewish rituals, according to Weiss. Their interest is Israeli culture.

Participants study modern Hebrew and many go to live in Israel for a time. They have planted a forest in Sha'ar Hagaion, along the road between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Two years ago, Beit Shalom built a Holocaust education center in Fukiyama, a city near Hiroshima. Outside the center, roses called "Anne's roses" bloom. Named for Anne Frank, these are the same strain that grew outside the house in which the Frank family hid in Amsterdam. These roses were sent to Otsuki by Otto Frank.

But the centerpiece of Beit Shalom is its choir.

According to Weiss, who moved to the Bay Area seven years ago, choir members are expected to know Hebrew. She remembers being asked to translate a Yiddish song for the group, as they would not use it in performances without understanding what the song was about.

Every few years the choir goes on tour and gives concerts in Jewish communities around the world. This year they will make a San Francisco stop, performing at Congregation Emanu-el on Nov. 17. The choir does not accept a fee for performing, Weiss said. Any money raised through ticket sales goes to the host congregation.

"With anti-Semitism all over the world," said Weiss, "this is something to cherish."