Monday, February 2, 2009

[Regina Walton's Expat Interviews] Judaism in Korea

My time here is rapidly winding down and I think of these religion pieces as a contribution to the well being of expats living here in Seoul. I say Seoul because, unfortunately, all of my interviewees thus far are Seoul-based and have Seoul-based congregations.

Here is part four: Judaism in Korea

This is the fourth part in a series looking into religion in Korea. The first objective is to give expatriates a springboard from which to develop spiritually. Feature articles have examined Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism and will examine Islam and Sikhism. - Ed.

When you think of religion in Korea, Judaism does not exactly spring to mind.

But over the last decade especially, Seoul has seen demand for Jewish products and food rise, and in 2008 the Chabad House opened in the Itaewon district of Seoul.

This was a significant event for Judaism in Korea. There are quite a few Christian and Muslim services available to foreigners, but there was nothing for Jews.

If you weren't associated with the military and you're Jewish, you had had to arrange for someone to sign you in to a U.S. military on base.

Chabad House opened in Seoul in April 2008, and they offer services to help Jews living in or visiting Seoul.

Like other religions, there are different strains of Judaism: Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. Chabad-Lubavich is Orthodox. It was founded in Russia in the 18th century and is now based in Brooklyn, New York. In the 1950s they started to send shluchim, or missionaries, around the world in order to reach as many Jews as possible. Currently, Chabad-Lubavich has over 3,000 centers worldwide.

I had a chance to meet with Rabbi Osher Litzman at his home to ask him a few questions about Chabad House and how the transition has been for him, his wife and their family.

"Chabad is a home away from home for every Jew, whatever his or her background." When asked what Chabad House provides for people in need, Litzman answered, "You can come talk to a Rabbi, get kosher food, get religious materials for the holidays, participate in events, practice Judaism and learn more. This is all about having one place to come, to feel more connected and to meet other Jews."

Rabbi Osher Litzman (right), from Israel, is the Jewish leader of the Jewish community of Korea. Pierre Cohen-Aknine is originally from France and has been living in Korea for the last 27 years. [Photo by Jung-keun Song]

Litzman then explained the current schedule for Jewish services: "We have services every Friday night, every Saturday morning and afternoon, and on holidays. Sometimes we have services during the weekday as well." The schedule can be found at Chabad of Korea website (

They are also establishing other regular events, like the Tefillin Club, which is a place for men to come, enjoy and relax and have kosher food. They meet on the first Sunday of each month at the Seoul Cigar Club.

They also have a similar gathering for women. The women's gathering is based on the Jewish calendar and is scheduled near Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the Jewish month.

Litzman added that there are plans in the works to create regular activities for children.

So what exactly does "kosher" mean? "Kosher means that the production of the food has been supervised and does not violate Jewish dietary laws," said Litzman.

He then explained that people who are in search of kosher food in Korea are lucky because Costco actually stocks many kosher food items. "(On) kosher (foods) there is a symbol that means that someone inspected the manufacturing process and found it in accordance to Jewish dietary laws ... Korea is blessed with Costco. Costco has many kosher products except for milk, cheese products and meat.

"We produce kosher cheese ourselves, but it is still a problem to obtain kosher meat. We have to find a good solution for that."

When asked to describe Chabad's regular congregation he said, "Every week we find at least one more Jew. Hanukkah was two weeks ago and it was a wonderful time. Many new people came to the event we had in front of the Hamilton Hotel. People saw us building the Menorah."

Right now there isn't a demand for it, but the rabbi did not rule out the possibility of a Chabad House one day opening in a location outside Seoul. "Well, there are not many Jewish people who come here to tour. This is most likely because there are no kosher options here.

"In Beijing, they have a kosher restaurant. In Thailand they have kosher restaurants. All over the world they have kosher restaurants, but not here. We just opened. There are direct flights between Israel and Korea, but I think we've had fewer than ten tourists since we opened."

He explained that most people they work with are here as expatriates. Also, "(we) have business people coming in from all over the world. All of them have said that they would not stay here for the weekend if we were not here."

The response from the Jewish community has been both positive and strong. "The request for us to come was from the community ... Many Jews that live and work here didn't have a place to pray for Yom Kippur."

Now that Chabad is here, Rabbi Litzman can help Jewish families become more observant. "Now people have the opportunity. We have a family that decided to keep kosher. We kosherized their kitchen."

He then went on to describe how Jews in Seoul are now able to follow Jewish traditions more easily now that they are here. "Another (member has decided) to put on the Tefillin, leather boxes which contain biblical verses and are very important for prayer rituals every day - not only one, but a few. Some people bought Tefillin and some people had it before and now they're using it.

We are giving people Mezuzot." Mezuzot are hand-written biblical verses put on doorways that he described as not only Biblically commanded, but also a kind of method Jews use for home security.

"People are getting books and we have lecturers." These lectures usually occur at the same time as the Friday and Saturday services. "We are about to establish a library. We want to open a Jewish library here in Korea. We are requesting donations for books."

In terms of upcoming special events, he mentioned that they will be bringing in rabbis from other locations in Asia and from around the world.

"Korea is the best place to live. You get a taste of everything. You can feel that you live in America sometimes. You have modern technology and a nice subway. (It's) better than New York even.

"Wonderful people live here. We have gotten so much help from so many people and they didn't want a penny."

For more information on kosher meals, synagogue services or classes please go to the Chabad-Lubavich Korea website:

For information on the Tefillin Club go to

Here is an Adobe Acrobat version. Enjoy!

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