Japanese Christian choir sings praises of Jews, Israel

Next week, a 40-year-old Japanese woman wearing a bright orange kimono will stand onstage at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette and lift her hands to conduct 35 choral singers, also from Japan. As they begin to sing in harmony, the Hebrew lyrics of “Yerushalayim shel Zahav” (Jerusalem of Gold) will pour forth.

This will not be your typical Bay Area choir performance — as the singers in Makhelat Hashachar, or Dawn Choir, not only are from Japan, but are affiliated with a religious denomination called the Japan Christian Friends of Israel. They will be performing Japanese traditional pieces, Jewish liturgical music and Israeli folk songs.

The Temple Isaiah concert will be the second stop on a North American tour that will take the group to seven cities, including Los Angeles, New York City, Toronto and Louisville.

Makhelat Hashachar, or Dawn Choir, will perform at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette.

On Thursday, Oct. 27, in the sanctuary at Temple Isaiah, the singers will be performing for free at 7 p.m. as part of Under One Tent, a book-and-arts festival at multiple venues throughout Contra Costa County. The festival is supported by the Contra Costa JCC, the Jewish Federation of the East Bay and nine other Jewish institutions in the area.

“This show has been over two years in the making,” said Temple Isaiah Cantor Leigh Korn, who organized the show, which is being sponsored by Cantor Korn’s Music Fund. “I first heard about their choir back when I was in cantorial school, in the pre-YouTube days when you couldn’t just get online and watch     them. Since then, I’ve hoped … to see them live. I’m very excited to be able to bring such an excellent choral ensemble to my community.”

The roots of Makhelat Hashachar date back to 1946, when Rev. Takeji Otsuki formed the Japan Christian Friends of Israel, also known as Beit Shalom (House of Peace), a few years after a missionary trip to China on which he was said to have had a revelation about God’s plan for Israel.

According to their teachings, in 1938 Otsuki was instructed by God to pray for the restoration of the nation of Israel and the spiritual renewal of Israel.

Presently, according to the choir’s website, there are some 100 churches across Japan that are part of the Japan Christian Friends of Israel, which is based in Kyoto. Its followers are Christians (mostly Protestants) who recognize Jews as the chosen people, though they don’t want to convert to Judaism.

“We are Christian, but have a very unique mission compared with other Christians,” Satomi Akao, the group’s conductor for the past two years, said in a phone interview. A key part of that mission, she continued, “is to pray for the peace of Jerusalem, because that is the key for the peace of the world.” Adherents also pray for the Jewish people and the coming of the Messiah.

Akao, an accomplished organist, not only has a bachelor’s degree in music from Kobe College in Japan and a master’s from the Yale Institue of Sacred Music, but she also is the granddaughter of Otsuki, the JCFI founder. She has been singing with Makhelat Hashachar for nearly 20 years.

The choir consists of male and female singers selected from local choirs at JCFI churches across Japan. The group first visited Israel in 1971, and since has made 17 tours to Israel and Jewish communities in the United States and Canada. The current concert tour is the choir’s ninth visit to North America in the past 30 years.

“This was such a unique opportunity that I didn’t want anyone to miss out on it,” Korn said of making sure the group had a Bay Area stop. “I wanted to make it as accessible as possible, because this choir tours only every six years, and the chance that they’ll be back in California is slim.”

In Lafayette, Temple Isaiah’s adult choir will share the stage with the Japanese vocalists for two songs.

Makhelat Hashachar also performs in Japan, and sometimes its members treat visitors who are staying at Beit Shalom (which offers free housing to short-term Jewish guests) to a song or two. Beit Shalom, or JCFI, says it is the third-largest Japanese-founded church in a country whose Christian population is just 1 percent of the country.

“We are Christians who think that the Jewish people are our true friends and we do everything we can to support them,” Akao said. As for the choir’s role in that, she said, “I believe that music is a universal language. Even though we are Japanese and you are Jewish, through the music we can feel as one.”

Makhelat Hashachar will perform at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 27 at Temple Isaiah, 945 Risa Road, Lafayette. Free.

Hannah Rubin

Hannah Rubin is a writer at J. She can be reached at [email protected].