New Jew embraces New Jersey shul

New Jew embraces New Jersey shul

In a few weeks, Yoko Orit Yamamoto will become a bat mitzvah at Temple Israel in Cliffside Park. Several days later, she will make aliyah.

Yamamoto, who will use the name Orit in Israel — "I don’t use it in Tokyo because it is not very common there," she said — converted to Judaism last year, at the age of 38. But, she said, she became interested in Judaism long before that.

Yoko Yamamoto is taking the Hebrew name Orit, which means light.

"I was fascinated by the religion and by the relationship between God and the Jews," she said. Her parents — who, she said, have respected her decision — "don’t understand, but they are supportive. They are Buddhists," she said, noting that "in Buddhism, you do not have this relationship with God."

Sent to Israel in 1995 by her employer, Kumon Publishers, she was inspired to learn more about Judaism, beginning a course of study on her return. In ‘003, she began to study for conversion with a rabbi in Tokyo.

Currently living in New York, where she is studying Hebrew with a friend in preparation for reading Torah and chanting the haftarah, Yamamoto said she began teaching herself English in ’00’. She now speaks it fluently.

"I knew I would need English if I wanted to convert," she said, noting that there are many more resources in English than in Japanese.

Shortly before her conversion, she was sent to Teaneck on business. It was then that she discovered Temple Israel Community Center in Cliffside Park. Based at a hotel in Edgewater, she walked to Shabbat services — ‘5 minutes uphill.

"I didn’t want to drive," she said. "I wasn’t Jewish at first," she added, "and I was not sure if they would welcome me. But they gave me a very warm welcome and taught me a lot about Judaism. They treated me as a member of the synagogue family."

She came back on Purim. "I wanted to be there as much as possible," she said, adding that "practicing [for my bat mitzvah] is hard, but I want to make every effort. This is a big mitzvah as a Jew. The congregation here has been very helpful and I am very appreciative."

"It’s difficult to express my feelings," she said. "Rabbi [Shammai] Engelmayer is very special to me. I have grown a lot as a Jew and as an individual. I read his articles [online] even when I’m in Japan. They inspire me."

Engelmayer told the Standard that Yamamoto’s Hebrew name, Orit, is very appropriate, inasmuch as the Hebrew word "or" means light.

"She adds an extra light to the congregation," he said, "with her bright, young, cheerful face and so much enthusiasm. She chose the right name."

He noted that when he first saw her sitting in the sanctuary on a Shabbat morning more than a year ago, "I went over to her and she explained [her situation] and asked if she could stay. Before the service was over, she had been ‘adopted’ by the congregation."

"When a stranger walks in, they’re made to feel like a long-lost relative" in the shul, said Engelmayer, noting that Yamamoto appeared comfortable with the ritual and came back to the shul almost every Shabbat during her stay in New Jersey. "She knew her stuff," he said. "She also participated in the Torah study."

Yamamoto asked to be put on the shul’s e-mail list to receive Shabbat bulletins, said Engelmayer.

"She became part of the community, sending messages of congratulations and condolences" to fellow congregants. And while the congregation has offered to sponsor the kiddush at her upcoming bat mitzvah, Yamamoto — who will read the maftir aliyah, chant a haftarah, and deliver a speech — has insisted on doing it herself.

While she does not know what she will do in Israel, Yamamoto is hopeful that she will be able to find a job that uses her accounting skills. She will begin her life there on a kibbutz in the Negev, near Beersheva.

"She says she will keep coming back [to Temple Israel]" whenever she can, said Engelmayer. "We expect to maintain a close relationship."

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