While frightening news comes out of North Korea these days, things are different for American visitors to South Korea, where the Korean Tourism Organization’s global campaign can be brilliantly summed up in a single word: sparkling.
In the past, more observant Jewish visitors or those maintaining kosher diets may have overlooked Korea as a vacation destination because of the lack of a Jewish presence (in comparison to cities like Beijing and Shanghai). However, a new Chabad center and the efforts of Rabbi Osher Litzman and his community endeavor to change that for all denominations of Jews.
“We arrived before Passover 2008, and had 50 people over for our first Passover,” recalls Litzman. “A sign that the center was blessed was that the package with our supplies for the seder arrived that morning.”
“This year,” he says, “we had over 100 people over for Passover. Altogether, we have a community in Korea that numbers about 400 Jews, who are mostly from the U.S., Canada and Israel. Koreans have been so generous towards us, and I say this from experience, having traveled the world for Chabad.”
The community continues to grow steadily, which prompted the Litzmans to relocate the center to a larger space near Seoul’s Embassy Row area, as well as open a Jewish library dedicated to the memory of Chabad emmissaries Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg, who were slain last year in the attacks on the Mumbai Chabad house in India.
Local Koreans, such as guide Sharon Choi, have voiced an interest in learning more about Jewish culture.
“We are effectively the Jewish embassy, even though we do have an Israeli embassy here,” notes Litzman, who predicts by this time next year they may be located in an even bigger space, between the growth of the expat community and queries from Jews now interested in visiting Korea from around the world.
“What was the most challenging thing for us was that we were the first Jewish community in Korea,” he continues. “At first, there were no [holiday] services, mikvahs or even kosher food, so we had to start from scratch, as everything was initially confined to the army base.”
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