By Jewish Times Asia
Seeds have been planted and a new Jewish community has been grown. The countries of South Korea and Israel have much in common. They both achieved independence in 1948, with Israel first on 15 May 1948 and South Korea following shortly after on 15 August 1948. From there both nations faced challenges and battles for international recognition and also were forced to defend themselves in wars against hostile neighbours.
In 1962, Israel and South Korea established full diplomatic relations and Israel opened a residential embassy in Seoul in 1964. It was in 1969 that a Korean ambassador, who resided in Rome, fi rst presented his Letter of Credentials to the President of Israel. In 1978, due to reported budgetary constraints, Israel closed its embassy in Seoul. In 1992, Israel reopened its residential embassy in Seoul and in 1993 Korea opened its residential embassy in Tel Aviv.
According to the 2006 American Jewish Yearbook, there are only 100 Jews living in South Korea and this community are largely transitory and military or defense industry based. The first Jewish settlement in Korea was, in fact, a group comprised of US military during the Korean War in the 1950s. Today the community has been expanded to include Jewish business people from around the world as well as a small community of English teachers, journalists, students and visitors. The chaplain on the U.S. military base in Yongsan leads Shabbat and festival services.
While civilians are permitted to attend services there, the military base in Yongsan is not a convenient location for Seoul’s civilian Jewish population. Also the military’s security requirements are such that participants must produce passes and signin, making the practicality of attendance a problem for more observant Jews.
Then, along came Israeli Ambassador Yigal B. Caspi who requested that Chabad-Lubavitch establish a permanent presence there after encountering Chabad representatives during the annual summer ‘peace corps’ visit to the region – and the new centre was born. He spoke highly of the movement’s ability to reach out to Jews of all backgrounds and to connect them to one another. That was all it took. The rest is history.
Chabad emissaries, Rabbi Osher and Mussy Litzman, along with their toddler, arrived in Seoul just before Pesach in 2008. Rabbi Osher explains that he was in the middle of serving his required army duty in the Israeli Defense Forces when he was asked to be the rabbi for the Jewish community in Korea.
Chabad headquarters sent a special letter of request in order to ensure that he would be able to go. One week later, the young family was on its way.
The container which held the matzah and kosher wine, essentials for Pesach, was sent only one month prior to the festival and the timing of its arrival was less than certain. In the eleventh hour the container arrived, in Korea, and despite the fact that the required inspection and taxes had not been secured beforehand, they managed to, on the morning of the first Seder, have their holiday essentials in hand.
With timing issues under control and the essentials covered, over 40 Jews came to services, for Pesach, held in the Western co-op residence in downtown Seoul.
By way of background, both Rabbi Osher and Mussy Litzman studied in Kfar Chabad.
The village of Kfar Chabad, located just outside Lod and about 8km from Tel Aviv, serves as the Chabad-Lubavitch headquarters in Israel. Kfar Chabad was founded by the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, in 1949. Mussy Litzman also worked at Kfar Chabad college and her father serves as the editor of Kfar Chabad magazine.
Rabbi Osher is no newcomer to world travel and adventure.
After studying in Kfar Chabad and at 770 (Chabad headquarters) in Brooklyn, between 2001 until his marriage in 2005, he travelled the world visiting hundreds of Chabad emissaries in 35 countries. This is where the real learning for this new posting took place.
The couple has been very busy building a Jewish community for Seoul. Lag B’Omer was celebrated Israeli style, complete with hummus, pita and falafel. And now, as part of the couple’s preparation for their first Shavuot in Korea, there are now Kosher dairy products made in Korea for their community year round.
Rabbi Osher purchased a cow and every few weeks they journey to a farm near North Korea in order to bring back 60 litres of kosher milk. They use this fresh milk to make yogurt, soft and hard cheese, butter and pasteurised milk, enough to distribute to those in the community who request it.
Their newly established Chabad House is located in Itaewon, a neighbourhood which has the highest concentration of westerners in South Korea. When they need one or two more men to make a minyan, Rabbi Osher himself hits the streets. He says that despite the small Jewish population of Seoul, he is always able to fi nd Jews on the main street willing to participate when asked. “Once we even met the American ambassador, Alexander Wershbaw,” Rabbi Osher foundly recalls.
The High Holidays were very uplifting and moving, Over 100 Jews showed up to the services,” he proudly states. This also coincided with the bris of the couple’s newborn son. The brit milah fell out on the fi rst day of Rosh Hashanah and its celebration was a first for Korea.
“The hall in the Hamilton Hotel in Itaewon was full of Jews from around the world that now live, work and study in Korea. Five days following his own son’s bris, they travelled to perform a bris for another Jewish boy born into the community.
Now that the buzz of the High Holidays has died down, they are hard at work on new projects. They have been in touch with a shochet to come to do the fi rst ever shchita in Korea. Rabbi Osher has big plans and sees a bright future for the Jewish community in Seoul.
They are looking forward to moving to a bigger place and to establishing a kindergarten to serve the needs of the increasing number of Jewish children in the area. Their young family is growing and with it the future of Jewish life in South Korea is growing.
Chabad of South Korea
44-50 Itaewon Yongsan-Gu,
Seoul, Republic of Korea
Tel: (822) 010 7730 3770
e-mail: [email protected]