Lovers of Zion: The growing phenomenon of Koreans in Israel

Unlike Russians, Germans, Greeks and Armenians, Korean Christians don’t have their own quarter or Old City cathedral, but they are a growing and often strongly Zionist community in Jerusalem.

November 26, 2016 02:15
The Hebrew University

Ezra Kim, who was born in Bethlehem, studies biblical studies at the Hebrew University. (photo credit: JACOB ATKINS)

In May 1995, Ezra Kim entered the world in a Christian hospital in Bethlehem.

The doctor told his parents that he was the first Asian to be born in the hospital, and possibly the first in Bethlehem – a great honor for this deeply Christian South Korean family.

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Other than a six-year hiatus completing high school in Seoul, Kim has been a content Jerusalemite. He still remembers the names of his friends from primary school: Eitan, Ophir, Nir and Liel. For the next 10 years, he’ll be found overlooking the city he loves from the Hebrew University library on Mount Scopus, earning a master’s and then a PhD in biblical studies (with two years mandatory army service in South Korea thrown in).

“I want to be a pastor. That’s been my only dream since I was born, since my Dad made a promise to God,” he says. “To be a pastor you have to know the Bible well, and the place to know the Bible well is Israel.”

Irena Cho wasn’t born in Jerusalem, but her family moved here from South Korea when she was three, and never left.

“If someone is asking me where I want to live, here or there, I will answer him: here. That’s for sure,” says Cho.

This is her 20th year in Israel, but she’s only allowed to stay because her enrollment at university entitles her to a student visa. “Misrad Hapnim [Interior Ministry]!” she shrugs, and laughs. “Sounds crazy, huh?” She looked into volunteering for the army, but heard that they already had too many takers, so didn’t pursue it.

KIM AND Cho are some of the veterans of an estimated 800-strong community of South Koreans in Israel. Often overlooked by Israelis as tourists or greeted in the streets with “Ni-hau!” (“Hello” in Mandarin), many have been quietly putting down roots here, mainly in Jerusalem.

What entices people from Seoul to make their way to Jerusalem? The student village at Hebrew University, which many call home, is a far cry from the global, hyper-connected capital of South Korea. On Saturdays, sipping coffee at Aroma is the only recreational activity within walking distance.

Everyone interviewed for this article had their own personal reasons for being here, including a desire to study in the vaunted Jewish tradition. But like many who are called to Jerusalem from across the seas, there is one common element: God.

Kim, an aspiring pastor, is sitting in the basement of the Jerusalem Alliance Church on Hanevi’im Street in downtown Jerusalem, which is rented every Saturday by his congregation – all Koreans. He has just finished playing the drums in a six-piece Christian rock band that performs the music for the service in Korean.

South Korean church in Israel (photo credit: JACOB ATKINS)

The 42 other churchgoers are a mixture of students and families. Everyone who has counted says there are five such Korean churches in Jerusalem, and one each in Tel Aviv and Haifa.

“I decided at 16, during the first year of my high school [to come back to Israel],” Kim remembers. “I’m not thrilled about the studies that I have in high school in Korea so I just finished it fast and then I decided – me and my Dad, we talked – and I decided I wanted to come here to the university.”

His father was studying in Jerusalem when Kim was born, but the hospitals were expensive so they opted for Bethlehem, which happened to be the birthplace of another person wellknown to Christians.

Kim found studying in his home country (or his other home country, more accurately) an unwelcome change.

“There was a big difference between Israeli schools and Korean schools. I was more comfortable with the schools here because I was born here and this was my hometown for a long time.”

“Everybody looks like me [in Korea] so that is something familiar. But except for that, all the system of the schools or how they educate their kids or sometimes beat the kids – not anymore now, but when I was in school – that was all a bit shocking.”

He took care of his high-school obligation by completing his matriculation exams at age 16 – two years ahead of his friends. Instead, he stayed at home with his father studying English, Hebrew (again) and the Bible, in preparation for his return.

JIHYE ROY, also from Seoul, came to Israel for the first time in 2013 to volunteer in a South Korean charity, where she taught painting to Ethiopian- Israeli children from single-parent families.

“I just [had] one class once a week,” she recalls. “That means I had lots of time, so I rented a car and I drove to travel all around the country. It was in between winter and spring, so the whole country changed in a fantastic way. This country inspired me a lot, and I’m Christian, of course, so there was no reason to say no to come here.”

Jihye Roy, from Seoul, is about to begin her master’s in art theory in Bezalel (photo credit: JACOB ATKINS)

After splitting the intervening period between Tanzania (where she caught malaria), Korea and Australia, Roy came back this winter to learn Hebrew from scratch. In October, after nine months of ulpan, she will begin a master’s in theory of art at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design – an artistic endeavor, but also tinged with religious duty.

“My family believes every Jew has to come back to this country according to the Bible, and we believe that Jews are a covenant holder,” she says.

“Because we are waiting for Jesus coming again, right? And in the Bible, like, for Jesus to come back again to this world, there are some preconditions, so actually I don’t have that much knowledge about that, I just know that every Jew has to come back... at the end of the world, to Jerusalem. It has to be achieved, and if they have to achieve it...

then we want to help them out. Because I think, [as] every Christian who loves God, we owe them.”

MANY OF the South Koreans in Israel eschew the idea that the covenant has passed from Judaism to Christianity. In their eyes, the “Chosen People” have always been thus.

There are some surprising Israeli beneficiaries of this belief.

AMIKO is a Jerusalem-based charity set up in 2009 by Yonggu Kim. The name is a Hebrew acronym for Amutat Mitnadvim Yisraelim Vekoreanim (The Association of Israeli and Korean Volunteers). He runs it single-handedly with 15 volunteers, most of whom are “young adult” South Koreans. He says the group helps the elderly, disabled, kids from poor families and “children at risk.”

They hook up with existing Israeli charities to deliver services and run a sort of boarding house in Jerusalem for a handful of disadvantaged kids.

“As volunteers from Korea, we fully understand the power of serving, and that Korea and Israel have come so far with the help from others,” writes Yonggu in an email. “We are here to serve those in need in [the] hope that we heal the broken-hearted and bring freedom to those [who are] physically disabled.”

“Personally, I know that Jesus came to Israel to serve people of God, not to be served! I just follow his commandment as he did. Giving love of God to His people and comfort [to] His people.”

THERE ARE many others, however, who come with a more transactional edge to their spirituality.

In South Korea, particularly among Christians, so-called “Jewish education” has garnered a fan base. It is perceived as being built on intellectual to-andfro and characterized by free-flowing debate and analysis. Many see in it a value absent from the more rigid style of schooling that prevails at home, as described earlier by Ezra Kim.

It also helps that education is vastly cheaper here than there, with parents or students not needing to get into debt in order to fund a degree.

“In Korea it’s much more competitive,” explains Jaewon Seo, originally from South Korea, in a group study room at the Hebrew University library, “and the whole academic endeavors are due to the competition, not mainly because of the educational passion or passion to learn, but just to be competitive in the society.

“I want to major in engineering or physics... but the Jews are famous for it, too, because a lot of the recipients of the Nobel Prize in the science area are Jews, including the famous Einstein and many other people, and there are a lot of tech start-ups in Tel Aviv and Haifa.”

A spokesman for the Hebrew University was unable to say how many South Koreans overall are currently studying for degrees there. But 84 students were enrolled in a degree, Hebrew ulpan or the pre-university program at the Rothberg International School during the last academic year, he said, and South Korea is considered an “important market for international recruiting.” The University of the Holy Land, an American Christian institution popular among Koreans, did not respond to a request for comment.

Nor did the South Korean embassy.

BUT ISRAEL is a place with rough, and sometimes sharp, edges. The city that exists on earth and in heaven can be a little too earthy, particularly for a foreigner from a radically different culture and with an idealized vision of what they will find.

Seyou Park, studying biochemistry, praises the “freer” and less restricted lifestyle that Israelis have fostered. But he has come away from dealings with Israelis with mixed feelings.

“Honestly, the people around here are quite, how do you say, they are not kind [he later agrees with “direct”]. They say what they want to say, and it feels like ‘whoa.’ “They’re kind of aggressive, to our eyes, to my eyes,” says Park, “because, you know, being Asians, eastern Asians, we calm ourselves during conversations, and we have to be respectful of one another...”

Mideum Eun, who had been living for years in Russia with his missionary parents, arrived in the midst of the 2014 Gaza war. He said he saw the aftermath of a terrorist attack in the taxi from the airport. When he exited the taxi at his accommodation, a random Israeli approached him. “He didn’t know me and I didn’t know him, but he said to me ‘Israel is the best, and Palestinians they are dogs!’” Aside from that spicy introduction to the birthplace of his religion, his expectations were exceeded. From films and from news that he was exposed to he had thought that “everything is just desert [in Israel], and nothing, no buildings. When I came here I was very impressed because I saw many buildings and it was very modernized. I thought that there are wars, but they are living better than Korea and Russia, I think.”

Roy, the painter, says she cried a lot in her first two weeks here. She didn’t know setting up a bank account, organizing a phone contract or buying a Rav-Kav smartcard for public transport would be such a hassle. She also says she experienced negative reactions from Israelis when she said she wanted to stay here for the next few years at least.

Despite the shocks, many of the Koreans living here have made local friends, especially the long-term residents who speak Hebrew well. Many Koreans living here may “get” Israel, but to those at home, it’s still a tiny, far-away country that’s in the news too much.

MANY BELIEVE that developing better understanding between Israel and Korea should be easy, in theory. Both achieved independence in 1948, are involved in an intractable territorial conflict and are at similar stages in their economic journeys.

Relationships also play a part. A handful of South Koreans have converted to Judaism and made aliya, mainly after marrying a Jew, a spokeswoman for the Immigration and Absorption Ministry said.

Putting meat on the bones of this theoretical closeness is a goal for Ezra, who identifies as “Korean-Israeli.” He has helped some Korean companies with translation, but wants to broaden their involvement in Israel.

“I think there is a lasting connection between Israel and Korea and that’s what I want to see developed. Let’s say tourism, or economically.”

But first, he must deal with Jerusalemites who still yell out ‘Ni hao!’ “I call to them, ‘Come here, I’m not Chinese, I’m not going to let you go until you guess the right country.’”

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