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.

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 secondnight of Hanukkah.

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

If anyone can talk about resisting assimilation, it is Tsuruoka, athird-generation Japanese-American who converted to Judaism, and the smallband 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 isan important concept of Judaism."

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

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

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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. Aself-described "geek" who was born and reared on Manhattan's Upper WestSide, he had a lot of Jewish friends. As a child, he attended a Methodistchurch 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 libraryof Jewish Theological Seminary, a 12-block walk from his home.

What was it about Judaism that attracted him?

"It's the philosophy, about how people ought to treat each other, andrelate to God. Also, it's the insistence on studying and questioning.Christianity, as I perceived it, failed to ask certain questions. InChristianity I never felt the struggle between a person and God that I feelas a Jew. In Christianity, faith alone can save you, and will ultimatelymake you a good person. But in Judaism, faith comes after you become a goodperson."

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