As countries around the world are preparing to vie for gold medals in the 2018 Winter Olympics, which will begin on February 9, the host country of South Korea already deserves a gold medal as a country that holds the Jewish people in high regard.
Rabbi Osher Litzman, who in 2008, founded the first Chabad House of South Korea in Seoul with his wife Mussia, told JTA that “there are many Koreans coming [to the Chabad House] on a daily basis. They want to learn about Judaism, buy kosher food, ask questions, [receive] guidance.”
Chabad is a Jewish outreach movement that sends emissaries around the world to teach Judaism, provide kosher food and maintain Shabbat programs for tourists, journalists and other visitors.
Rabbi Litzman explained that non-Jewish South Koreans have a number of reasons for wanting to learn about Judaism.
“Some are just astonished by the fact that we have so many enemies and we still survive and we thrive,” he said. “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.”
South Korea’s ambassador to Israel in 2011, Young-sam Ma, noted on Israeli television at the time that each Korean family has at least one copy of the Talmud in their respective homes. “Korean mothers want to know how so many Jewish people became geniuses,” he said.
In fact, a reporter for the New Yorker, discovered that most of the bookstores have a one-volume popularization of the vast, multi-volume compendium of Jewish law and lore.
“Since 2015, The Israel Institute of Biblical Studies has had over 1,000 South Korean students studying Biblical and modern Hebrew with us,” Roni Segal, academic adviser for The Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, told Breaking Israel News. The institute is a company which teaches Hebrew language and Biblical studies online.
“These students have completed 1,535 courses with 20 percent of them completing academic courses accredited by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, an affiliate of The Israel Institute of Biblical Studies.”
According to Rabbi Litzman, who is also an operator of a kosher store and restaurant in Seoul that ships kosher food all over the country via an online shop and will also run a kosher food booth for the Olympics, there are approximately 1,000 Jews living in South Korea. Most of them are US service members, English teachers, diplomats as well as students from the United States or Canada.
A Jewish presence was first established in the Korean peninsula during the 1950-1953 Korean War. Jewish soldiers fought in the US-led effort to repel a communist attempt to control the peninsula.
Neighboring North Korea is not known to have any Jews living within its borders and the largely isolated nation has no diplomatic relations with the Jewish state. South Korea, however, maintains full diplomatic relations with Israel in large part due to the former’s relatively high population of Christians. Nearly 30 percent of South Korea’s population identify themselves as Christians.
Anti-Semitism is virtually non-existent in the country. “We feel blessed to be in such a country that there is admiration to Jews and especially to Israel,” said Rabbi Litzman.
Approximately, 800 South Koreans currently live in Israel, most of whom are evangelical Christians.
Culturally, South Koreans have a passion for education, and most of them maintain a stereotypical view of the Jewish people to be a population that has achieved disproportionate academic excellence, intelligence and financial success.
“South Koreans are often inspired to learn Hebrew in hopes that this will help them to emulate Jewish success,” said Segal. “We are grateful to have such a strong ally as South Korea and pray for a safe and enjoyable 2018 Olympics in the country.”
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