By Josefin Dolsten
ALTHOUGH the Jewish community in South Korea is small, Jews visiting the country for the Winter Olympic Games won’t have to skimp on kosher food or Shabbat programming.
The country’s Chabad emissary is setting up a pop-up restaurant in Pyeongchang County, the site of the 2018 Winter Olympics.
During the Olympics, which start next Friday, the temporary eatery will serve three meals daily, including Korean-style bulgogi beef, schnitzel, hot dogs and vegetarian items.
Chabad will also teach Torah classes and put on Shabbat programming for tourists, journalists and other visitors, as well as deliver food to athletes inside the Olympic Village.
“We have big events that we host at Chabad with hundreds of guests, but this is our first time to be able to cater for so many Jews all at once,” Rabbi Osher Litzman said from Seoul, where he has served as Chabad’s emissary since 2008.
There are around 1,000 Jews living in South Korea, according to Litzman.
Most are American service members, English teachers, diplomats or students from America or Canada who go to the east Asian country for a year or two.
Litzman and his family hosts Shabbat dinners at the Chabad house in Seoul, drawing some 40-50 attendees weekly, and High Holidays programming, which attracts more than 200 participants.
Chabad also operates a kosher store and restaurant in Seoul and ships kosher food all over the country via an online shop.
For Litzman, the Olympics serve as a way to reach more people and expand Chabad’s work in the country.
“It’s a great pleasure,” he said. “This is something that we have been waiting for. It’s a great opportunity for us to expand our services and to grow and to learn how to be able to host so many people.”
Until the Chabad house opened in 2008, the only Jewish services were at the American Army base in the capital, according to a website for expats. Today, the Chabad house serves as a resource not only to Jews but non-Jews as well.
“There are many Koreans coming here on a daily basis. They want to learn about Judaism, to buy kosher food, ask questions, [receive] guidance,” Litzman said. “We invite them to come whenever they want during the week.”
Non-Jewish South Koreans have various reasons for wanting to learn about Judaism, he said.
“Some are just astonished by the fact that we have so many enemies and we still survive and thrive,” Litzman said, “and others are thinking about the fact that many Jews are successful and, in monetary areas, they are trying to figure out how to do it.”
Others, he added, want to learn about the Torah or Talmud, or come because they love Israel or have had positive experiences with Jewish people.
South Koreans who want to learn about Hebrew and Israel have another place to go as well: the Israel Culture Centre in Seoul.
The venue teaches Hebrew and promotes Israeli culture, sometimes holding events with the Israeli embassy.
Founded in 2000, some 3,000 students have studied Hebrew — both modern and biblical — at the centre. It also has a Jewish studies library that is open to the public.
“Israel Culture Centre will continuously work hard to be a place where Israel’s unique culture is introduced to Koreans and significant friendship is being birthed between Koreans and Israelis,” the representative said.
South Koreans’ fascination with Judaism has been widely documented.
“Each Korean family has at least one copy of the Talmud,” the country’s then-ambassador to Israel, Young-sam Ma, told an Israeli TV host in 2011.
“Korean mothers want to know how so many Jewish people became geniuses.”
Many South Koreans have a positive view of Israel. Some 800 South Koreans live in the Jewish state, with many more going there to study Hebrew and the Bible.
Most of these enthusiasts are drawn to Israel because of their religious beliefs as evangelical Christians.
Christianity is the largest organised religion in South Korea, with nearly 30 per cent of the population identifying as Christians.
Unlike many Chabad emissaries, Litzman said he and his family do not have to deal with safety concerns and antisemitism.
“We feel blessed to be in such a country where there is admiration for Jews and especially for Israel,” he said, “and in general Korea is a very safe country.”