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South Korea Chabad Warms Up for Thousands of Jewish Visitors to Winter Olympics

South Korea Chabad Warms Up for Thousands of Jewish Visitors to Winter Olympics

Bringing in mass amounts of kosher food and a number of rabbinical students to help out

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Chabad in Korea, directed by Rabbi Osher and Mussy Litzman, will open two temporary centers strategically located in PyeongChang, near the ski slopes pictured above, and collectively host Shabbat meals for thousands of guests over the course of three Friday nights of the 2018 Winter Olympics. They are also equipped to prepare some 8,000 pre-packaged kosher meals for people on the go. (Photo: IOC)
Chabad in Korea, directed by Rabbi Osher and Mussy Litzman, will open two temporary centers strategically located in PyeongChang, near the ski slopes pictured above, and collectively host Shabbat meals for thousands of guests over the course of three Friday nights of the 2018 Winter Olympics. They are also equipped to prepare some 8,000 pre-packaged kosher meals for people on the go. (Photo: IOC)

Thirty years after playing host to the 1988 Summer Olympics in the capital city of Seoul, South Korea is getting set for the 2018 Winter Olympics, to take place in February. Tens of thousands of visitors from around the world are expected to attend the XXIII Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, about 75 miles east of Seoul. While it’s the second time that Olympic athletes will gather to compete in the country, it’s the first time a formal Jewish community will be there to greet them and their guests.

Some of the first Jews to visit the Korean Peninsula were Jewish soldiers in the 1904 Russo-Japanese War. Decades later, in 1950, American Jews were stationed in the country during the Korean War. A Jewish presence has continued ever since on U.S. military bases, and increasingly, with businesspeople in the country for work. Because there wasn’t a synagogue, local Jews would gather at events held on U.S. military bases, though increased security over the years left many unable to participate.

That changed with the arrival of Rabbi Osher and Mussy Litzman in 2008. In the past 10 years, the couple, both 35, have worked to build a strong Jewish community from the ground up. About 400 Jews live in South Korea, according to the Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries, with thousands more tourists and businesspeople visiting annually. Shabbat and holiday meals, and especially Passover seders, can attract more than 100 guests.

The Litzmans also run a small Hebrew school for the children of expats, largely U.S. military forces and Israeli diplomats.

Still, infrastructure remains sparse: The community lacks a mikvah, formal Jewish day school and communal facilities. To make up for that, Chabad’s front lawn has itself become an epicenter of Jewish celebration. In recent months, it has served as the backdrop for the first traditional Jewish wedding and bar mitzvah in South Korea.

Despite recent tensions between North Korea and the United States, the rabbi says locals and long-term expats are used to the ebb and flow of tension. “They’re pragmatic and really focus on going about their daily lives,” he says.

A visiting U.S. serviceman with Rabbi Osher Litzman (Photo: The Chabad Jewish Community of Korea)
A visiting U.S. serviceman with Rabbi Osher Litzman (Photo: The Chabad Jewish Community of Korea)

“We’ve had a lot of tourists and visitors lately, in part due to the buildup for the Games,” he continues. “Some people are a little nervous. We encourage everyone to come together, to unite and grow spiritually, and to bring positivity to the world through acts of goodness and kindness.”

The number of Jews in the country is expected to swell once the Winter Games get underway. The Litzmans are preparing for thousands of Jewish athletes, journalists and spectators to enter the country for weeks at a time.

“Our goal is to make sure that every Jew coming to South Korea has a powerful Jewish experience and a place to feel at home,” says the rabbi.

The Litzmans plan on opening two temporary centers strategically located in PyeongChang, and collectively they will host Shabbat meals for nearly thousands of guests over the course of the three Friday nights of the games. Additionally, they are equipped to prepare some 8,000 pre-packaged kosher meals for people on the go.

A group of summer travelers enjoys dinner at the Chabad House in Seoul.
A group of summer travelers enjoys dinner at the Chabad House in Seoul.

The Chabad House is the sole kosher establishment in the country. Though its kitchen has catered for events accommodating 100 people, to meet the increased demand the Litzmans will open a pop-up kosher restaurant in PyeongChang. It will serve a kosher take on traditional Korean dishes such as baked sweet potatoes, roasted chestnuts and dumpling soup, along with popular Israeli fare such as falafel and schnitzel. Kosher products must be imported from as far away as Israel and Australia.

The couple also plans to operate a Jewish room at the Olympic Village, stocking it with kosher food during the week and special food for Shabbat, including wine and challah on Fridays.

Daily Torah seminars—ranging from the weekly Torah portion to in-depth Talmud study—will explore the Jewish message behind sports and the meaning of competition. These will take place at one of the general PyeongChang pop-up centers and at the Jewish room in the Olympic Village.

Young Jewish professionals work to figure out the clues of an escape room activity. (Photo: The Chabad Jewish Community of Korea)
Young Jewish professionals work to figure out the clues of an escape room activity. (Photo: The Chabad Jewish Community of Korea)

The Litzmans plan on flying out eight rabbinical students, each with a command of multiple languages, to help with their Jewish programing.

Of particular pertinence this year are the tefillin booths that the yeshivah students will set up near the site of the matches. The emphasis on the mitzvah is timed to the 50th anniversary of the launch of the Tefillin Campaign by the Lubavitcher Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory.

The students also plan on distributing Shabbat candles to Jewish women, so they can light them while there and have some to take home.

Mussy Litzman, third from left, leads a kosher cooking class. (Photo: The Chabad Jewish Community of Korea)
Mussy Litzman, third from left, leads a kosher cooking class. (Photo: The Chabad Jewish Community of Korea)
Children show off art projects made in Hebrew school. (Photo: The Chabad Jewish Community of Korea)
Children show off art projects made in Hebrew school. (Photo: The Chabad Jewish Community of Korea)


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