A Japanese-American Hanukkah Lesson in Resisting Assimilation

At Great Neck's Temple Isaiah,Ted Tsuruoka's ethnic background uniquely qualifies him for understanding minority status.

BY: Alice Sparberg Alexiou


GREAT NECK, N.Y., Dec. 18 (RNS) -- This week, rabbinic student Ted Tsuruoka is busy preparing his sermon for Friday's Shabbat service, which is also the second night of Hanukkah.

Hanukkah, the eight-day festival that commemorates the victory of a band of Jews over their Hellenistic rulers more than 2,000 years ago, is about more than menorahs and dreidels. It is, Tsuruoka says, "about the miracle of a small handful of Jews who were able to sustain their faith."

If anyone can talk about resisting assimilation, it is Tsuruoka, a third-generation Japanese-American who converted to Judaism, and the small band of Long Island Jews who hired him as their spiritual leader.

"[Hanukkah] is a classic example of how Jews resist assimilation," Tsuruoka said. "Because separating yourself from the rest of the world is an important concept of Judaism."

Tsuruoka, 54, has thought long and hard about Jews and separation. "I'm a double minority," he said.

Four months ago, this former chief programming officer for Planned Parenthood of America began serving Temple Isaiah, a small Reform congregation in Great Neck, a largely well-to-do community on Long Island that is heavily Jewish.

As far as he knows, Tsuruoka is the only Japanese-American leading a synagogue. There are, however, other rabbinic students currently at the Reform movement's Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, he said, and he knows of at least one Japanese-American rabbi who previously led a congregation.

Tsuruoka's conversion came after many years of pondering and study. A self-described "geek" who was born and reared on Manhattan's Upper West Side, he had a lot of Jewish friends. As a child, he attended a Methodist church on West 104th Street that was founded by Japanese immigrants. Still, he was attracted to Judaism. By age 15, he was spending hours in the library of Jewish Theological Seminary, a 12-block walk from his home.

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