The Jews of South Korea - Finding a Jewish soul in Seoul

Koreans are particularly enamored of Talmud study as a means to intellectual achievement.

AT CHABAD Korea, Rabbi Osher Litzman gifts a box of shmurah matzah to US Chaplain Rabbi Henry Soussan. (photo credit: Courtesy)
AT CHABAD Korea, Rabbi Osher Litzman gifts a box of shmurah matzah to US Chaplain Rabbi Henry Soussan.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Playing a word association game using South Korea would lead most participants to think of hi-tech companies such as Samsung, LG or Hyundai. Others might mention Seoul, a teeming metropolis of 15 million people and the country’s capital. Still others would bring up the tense demilitarized zone that demarcates South and North Korea. Few, however, would associate Judaism with South Korea. Half of Korea’s population is said to have no religious affiliation; 25% are Buddhists; and 25% are Christians. In fact, the world’s largest Pentecostal mega-church, which hosts some 200,000 worshipers each Sunday, is in Seoul.
Is there a Jewish soul in Seoul? A recent visit to the capital city provided some definitive answers. Located on a quiet street in Itaewon, in one of Seoul’s fashionable neighborhoods near the Grand Hyatt Hotel and the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art, is Chabad Korea, Lubavitch Chabad’s outpost in Seoul. Chabad in Korea is headed by Rabbi Osher Litzman and his wife, Mussy. Litzman, 36, a native of Kiryat Malachi, and Mussy, from Kfar Chabad, have spent the past 10 years in Korea acting as Judaism’s ambassadors in Korea. Underneath the large Chabad sign outside the Litzmans’ home that serves as Chabad headquarters is the heading “Your Jewish Embassy.”
SEOUL MAYOR Park Won-soon and Litzman make a recent visit to the Western Wall. (Credit: Courtesy)SEOUL MAYOR Park Won-soon and Litzman make a recent visit to the Western Wall. (Credit: Courtesy)
Litzman is tall, dynamic and poised. When asked if he and his wife chose Korea as their calling, he first replied jokingly, “It’s similar to the question, ‘Did you choose your wife, or did someone force you to marry her?’” Addressing the question a bit more seriously, he explained, “We didn’t care where we would go. We heard that there was a need for a Chabad couple here, and we said we would come. We didn’t know anything about Korea. Back then, nobody heard about Korea. We told people that we are going to Korea and they said ‘Ukraine,’ or someone said, ‘Croatia.’”
Litzman, who arrived in Korea with his wife and a toddler in the spring of 2008, explains how Chabad came to Korea. Jews have been living in Korea since the Korean War (1950-1953). Approximately 4,000 US Armed Forces members who served in the Korean conflict were Jewish. Since 1957, the US Army has maintained a large presence in Korea, and a small percentage of its current servicemen are Jewish. As a result, he said, there have always been Jewish services held at the army bases there. About 12 years ago, Litzman continued, the US government ruled that Israelis would be not allowed to visit US military installations. As a result, Israel Embassy staff, as well as visiting Israeli professors were unable to attend religious services. Chabad was contacted, and Litzman answered the call.
The number of Jews in Korea is small. Litzman estimates that there are no more than 200 spread throughout the country. Most are from the United States and Canada, visiting for a year or two while working as English teachers. Others work as engineers with Samsung and other hi-tech companies. “Many of those who are coming are unaffiliated. Our job is to make them feel a warmth for Judaism, so that each Jew has something that draws him near – maybe Hanukkah, maybe Passover or Rosh Hashanah.”
Passover and Rosh Hashanah are the two holidays that attract the highest number of attendants, according to Litzman. This year, he says, the US Army asked Chabad to prepare Passover Seder meals for Jewish army personnel in South Korea, as Chabad is the only source of kosher food in the entire Korean Peninsula. Chabad also hosted soldiers and Department of Defense personnel at the Seders held at the Chabad house and provided Passover food, including shmura matzah and wine, to soldiers and hundreds of civilians throughout Korea.
NEW MIKVE in Seoul: Litzman and co. next to the ritual bath (Credit: Courtesy)NEW MIKVE in Seoul: Litzman and co. next to the ritual bath (Credit: Courtesy)
Hanukkah is also celebrated in Korea in a big way, and Chabad holds a public lighting ceremony in Seoul. On Sukkot, Litzman builds a large sukkah as well as a mobile version, and he proudly related that US Ambassador to Korea Harry Harris visited the Chabad sukkah during the holiday.
TWO HUNDRED Jews in a country of 50 million is statistically insignificant, but, said Litzman, “We are loved here. It is very warm and very friendly.” Interestingly, Koreans are well-aware of the Jewish community worldwide, and are particularly enamored of Talmud study as a means to intellectual achievement. A Korean translation of Talmudic stories and homilies is available in many bookstores.
Litzman explained that the origins of this Korean version date back to the 1970s, when Rabbi Marvin Tokayer, an American then living in Japan, wrote The Wisdom of The Talmud: A Thousand Years of Jewish Thought. The book sold quite well in Japan, and was further adapted by Korean publishers. Litzman noted that Koreans have emulated the classic Talmud “havruta” method of study, whereby students study in pairs to better increase their joint understanding.
Women of the community at the mikve’s grand opening. (Credit: Courtesy)Women of the community at the mikve’s grand opening. (Credit: Courtesy)
The appreciation for Jews and Israel was apparent to us as well. During our visit, whenever we had to ask directions – a fairly frequent event – Koreans were delighted to learn that we were from Israel. “Tel Aviv!” one exclaimed. Another told us that he studied the Old Testament frequently.
Litzman’s only lament is that he doesn’t have enough time to get everything done.
“I wish I would have more hours,” he laughed. “I am always doing something.” His seven children all participate in the activities of the center, and enjoy helping others.
In addition to religious services, the Chabad center maintains a small store with a wide variety of kosher foods, and provides kosher meals for visitors to Seoul. Litzman teaches classes to members of the Jewish community, as well as to non-Jews who are interested in Judaism.
During the 2018 Winter Olympics in Seoul, Litzman rented an RV and brought the Chabad spirit to the games.
“We met many thousands of people every day, provided kosher food, and offered a warm space physically and materially.”
A visiting Israeli related that he and Litzman went into the Itaewon neighborhood during Sukkot with a lulav and etrog, hoping to find Jews who would want to recite the blessings and wave the lulav. The Israeli visitor was skeptical, but eventually, Litzman found a Jew and happily provided him with the lulav to help him fulfill the religious obligation.
ISRAELI PRODUCTS line the shelves at Chabad Korea’s kosher food store. (Credit: Courtesy)ISRAELI PRODUCTS line the shelves at Chabad Korea’s kosher food store. (Credit: Courtesy)
Litzman recently completed construction of the first mikveh (ritual bath) for the Jewish community of South Korea. During my visit, the mikveh was under construction.  Litzman asked me if I want to see the mikveh, and driving quickly, he expertly navigated Seoul’s narrow streets and tiny corners until we arrived at the site.
“It’s a beautiful mikveh,” he enthused. “One of the most beautiful in the world.”
Litzman was impatient with the lack of progress and wanted to finish the project as soon as possible. As my visit ended, we bid each other farewell, and I was struck by the incongruous nature of leaving the mikveh, a familiar part of Jewish life, and exiting into the exceedingly foreign environment of a Korean taxi and the surrounding culture.
In late March, the Seoul mikveh was officially opened in a gala ceremony. Reflecting its Asian setting, the well-appointed mikveh sits on a hill and features a raindrop layout, rather than the common rectangular pool of water. 
The recent tragic shooting that occurred at the Chabad in Poway, California has not dimmed Litzman’s determination.
“Guns may hurt, even wound and kill, but as Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, Chabad rabbi in Poway said moments after being shot in his hand, ‘We are strong. We are united. They can’t break us’!”
After 10 years in Seoul, Litzman and his family are happily involved in their world.
“It’s a beautiful community,” he said. “We have wonderful people, very quality type of people. They feel connected to Judaism and they love Judaism. It is a lively community.”
As I left Korea, I had the answer to my question. Maintained by Rabbi Osher Litzman and family, the Jewish soul in Korea beats quietly, but steadily.