NEW YORK – When called upon to discuss the meaning of freedom at the American Jewish Committee’s annual Diplomatic Seder on Thursday night, South Korean Ambassador to the UN Oh Joon told a tale of modern oppression and familial hardship that resonated deeply with all the guests, Jewish and non-Jewish alike.
More than one million Korean people, he said, were separated from their families after the borders between North and South were fixed in 1953 following the Korean War, and passage between the two countries was forbidden. One of those was his father-in-law, who at the age of 18 was cut off from the rest of his family in the North.
Despite entering a lottery every year to try to be reunited, his father-in-law died 10 years ago without ever knowing what happened to them.
“There have been 18 rounds of reunions since the year 2000, and the South Korean government chooses only 200 people every time,” Oh said. “But sometimes I think it might be better to not have been given a chance. These are people in their 70s and 80s. They’re meeting their mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers, whom they haven’t seen in 50 years. They meet for a few days, and then they are parted and expected to never see each other again. It’s heart wrenching. And it gives me the thought that there are some freedoms that we take for granted, like the ability to be with our families.”
Delegations from over 40 countries, from Andorra to New Zealand, gathered at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun on the Upper West Side of Manhattan for the Seder. B’nai Jeshurun is one of New York’s oldest Jewish congregations, and a sense of history and cultural education imbued the slightly abbreviated service, which was led with gusto and wisdom by Rabbi Rolando Matalon.
“It’s not common to see so many people together from different countries and faiths,” Matalon said. “Events like this, when we have so many people from so many countries, show us that we’re not doomed to be aggressors toward each other.”
Betraying his Argentinian heritage with some humor, he then added: “Except during the World Cup.”
The other diplomatic speaker of the night, the Hungarian consul-general in New York, Károly Dán, reached into his country’s history for what freedom means today. He read aloud a 166-year-old letter written during a time of revolutions in Europe by the Jewish citizens of Hungary, who called for “equal rights” and demanded to “share in the burdens and blessings of our country.”
For some diplomats it was their first experience with up-close-and-personal Jewish traditions.
“I like it. This is my first time,” said Martin Dvorák, consul- general of the Czech Republic. “For many years I never knew why I felt so connected to things that were Jewish, and then I found out that my grandmother was Jewish.”
Nevertheless, Dvorák added that he didn’t think his family would be incorporating these traditions anytime soon.
“We’re still celebrating Christmas,” he said with a smile.
Yvonne Walker Borobo, consul- general of Gabon, said this was her second AJC Seder.
“For a lot of people who are not familiar with the Jewish culture and way of living, it’s interesting to understand where the Jewish people are coming from,” Borobo said.
“The only thing they really want is peace. We have to stop being slaves of each other and always work to shape and understand our cultures.”