Pesach in Seoul, South Korea

Wednesday, 23 May, 2012 - 8:38 am

Pesach in South Korea

We are international students at Yeshivah Gedolah, and spending Pesach with our families in North America was not really an option. Instead, we called the various Chabad Shluchim (emissaries) in Asia to offer our services. It turned out that Rabbi Osher Litzman, in Seoul, needed lots of help with his Pesach activities. We concluded our conversation, and began organizing our travel plans. 

As we were due to land in Seoul shortly after midnight, Rabbi Litzman suggested that we take an airport shuttle to a hotel situated a short five minute walk from his house. Little did we know that the shuttle did not run after 10:00pm.

When realization struck, we really did not know what to do. We were exhausted after the long international flight, and weighed down with luggage. There was no available transportation for hire, not even taxies. There were no public telephones in sight, and it wouldn’t have mattered if there were, because we did not have Rabbi Litzman’s phone number with us. We couldn’t even approach anyone for help in this country where almost no one speaks English. We were out of ideas. To the few people remaining in the airport, we were a most curious sight to behold.

Out of nowhere, a Korean appeared and spoke to us in English. Yes, English. Most Koreans can’t communicate in English, but this guy was fluent! The Korean’s first word was, “Shalom!” Wow! He knew we were Jewish, and he even spoke a bit of Hebrew! Of course, we looked Jewish, but that wouldn’t have meant much to someone unfamiliar with Jews – including most Koreans.

We soon discovered that we were talking to a Korean who loves Jews. He offered to take us wherever we needed to go. We were a bit apprehensive, but the guy seemed genuine, and we really had no other choice. Besides, we were on the Rebbe’s Shlichus, and we were sure that things would work out for the best. We got into his car, and arrived at the Chabad House at 3:00 in the morning, where Rabbi Litzman was anxiously awaiting us.

We woke up early the next morning to a most interesting surprise. Although Pesach was only three days away, the preparations at the Chabad House had not yet begun. The reason for this became apparent soon enough. From early morning to late evening, there was a steady stream of people flowing through the Chabad House doors. Many of the visitors sought Rabbi Litzman’s guidance, and some came to sell their Chometz and the like. The Chabad House is also the only place in South Korea where imported Kosher food can be obtained, and the week before Pesach was naturally a very busy time.

Under those conditions, it was impossible for Rabbi Litzman to prepare for Pesach single-handedly. For the next three days, we worked the entire time, cooking and cleaning. When the Chabad House filled with visitors, we made everyone feel welcome, and put Tefillin on many of the guests.

Aside from Chabad, there is one other organization in South Korea that provides Jewish services; the chaplaincy of the U.S. army. South Korea is home to approximately 30,000 U.S. military personnel. Naturally, this includes a small number of Jews. Non-military personnel are allowed to attend the Jewish events conducted by the U.S. military, but no effort is made to impart to them a sense of belonging. We therefore encouraged everyone we met to attend the Seder at the Chabad House, where they would be guaranteed a memorable experience.

When Seder night arrived, Rabbi Litzman quickly realized that the crowd was mostly English-speaking. [The Government of South Korea is keen for English to be taught in Korean schools, and they provide generous packages for foreign English-Language teachers. Most of the Seder participants were English-Language teachers from Canada temporarily based in South Korea.] Not much of an English speaker himself, Rabbi Litzman asked us to lead the Seder, and he offered to help from the sidelines.

There were about seventy participants at the first Seder, and almost sixty at the second. As the Seder progressed, we sang and danced, and there was an unmistakable vibe and a strong feeling of unity. After Yom-Tov, the Chabad House received many calls thanking us for our efforts, and for providing such an incredible experience.

During Chol Hamoed (the intermediate days of Pesach), we travelled all the way to the border of North Korea. Our goal was to connect with even the most far-flung Jew. Wherever we went, we received a lot of perplexed stares from people who were wondering just who or what we were. Korean culture regards beards as unrefined and socially unacceptable, and some Koreans went so far as to rebuke us (in Korean) whilst gesturing towards our beards. [Other curiosities of Korean culture include the prevalence of facial masks to combat the pollution, mobile phones the size of iPads, and restaurant signs advertising dog meat and whale meat.]

Of course, our conspicuousness worked to our advantage. We were quickly and easily noticed by any Jew who happened to be in the vicinity. Nearly seven million tourists pour into Korea every single year, and many of them are Jews. We also met Jewish soldiers in the U.S. military. Most of the people we met did not even know that there was a Chabad presence in Korea, and that Kosher food could be obtained there.

On one of our travels, a Korean gentleman stopped us in the street and presented us with his dilemma: He did a lot of business with Israelis, and he always felt bad that he did not have Kosher food available when he hosted them in Korea – even though the Israelis themselves did not seem to care. Of course, we told him all about the Kosher store at the Chabad House. He promised us that he would stock up and henceforth provide Kosher food for his Israeli guests in the future.

This year, we celebrated Pesach in the shadows of nuclear North-Korea; next year in Jerusalem!

Chabad House in Seoul, South Korea

Rabbi Litzman of Seoul, South Korea

Tefillin in South Korea

Tefillin in South Korea

Seder preparations in South Korea

Pesach in South Korea

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