From this year on, Jewish residents of South Korea won’t need a ticket – or a permit – to attend High Holiday services.

With less than a week until the start of Rosh Hashanah – it begins this year the night of Sept. 29 – Rabbi Osher and Mussy Litzman, who arrived earlier this year as Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries, are preparing for the Asian nation’s first-ever civilian services in recent memory.

“It’s been such a long time,” mused Pierre Cohen, 50, a French national and 20-year resident of Seoul who can’t remember the last time he didn’t have to trek to the sprawling U.S. Army Garrison in Yongsan to pray. “All the rabbis provided by the base were great, but now it’s our synagogue, our place.”

The services in Seoul will be one of several worldwide – including in Lubumbashi, Congo, and Arusha, Tanzania – that will be the first-ever in their communities. All told, Chabad-Lubavitch representatvies in close to 1,000 cities across some 81 countries will be hosting free High Holiday services.

According to the Litzmans – who arrived in Seoul with a toddler in tow just before Passover, after Israeli Ambassador Yigal B. Caspi requested that Chabad-Lubavitch establish a permanent presence there – the U.S. military has for years allowed local community members and Jewish visitors access to their chaplaincy services. The problem, though, was that anyone wanting to avail themselves of the opportunity had to face the not-so-easy-to-navigate military bureaucracy.

Shelly Korn, 35, said that the resident Army rabbi voluntarily led services for the Jewish community on base, but they had to conform to military hours. Those arriving late would have to sign in, a violation of Jewish laws forbidding writing on Shabbat and other holy days.

During the High Holidays of years past, few people from the local community would even approach the base, because of the hassle of obtaining the necessary permit. The military, for its part, tried to be accommodating, but security matters had to take precedence.

“In the military, we were obligated to do everything primarily in English,” continued Korn, a native Israeli. “But now in Seoul, it’s Hebrew first. We don’t have to have any restrictions.”

An Organic Community

Jewish community members in Seoul, South Korea, meet at the new Chabad House run by Rabbi Osher and Mussy Litzman.
Jewish community members in Seoul, South Korea, meet at the new Chabad House run by Rabbi Osher and Mussy Litzman.

An interesting development since their arrival, said Mussy Litzman, has been the readiness of more and more people to approach the Chabad House and “join” the nascent community. So many of the locals, she explained, didn’t realize how many other Jews also live in one of the most populated cities in the world.

“Everyone thinks they are the only Jew in the country,” she chuckled.

“For years, there have been Jews here and they didn’t have [civilian] services, and they didn’t go to the base,” continued Litzman. “But now, they see that we are here. Consequently, we are meeting more and more Jews.”

“There are Jews here from all over,” echoed Osher Litzman, who’s compiled a contact list of more than 300 names. “There’s a lot of Israelis, English teachers from England, the United States and Canada, businesspeople from Europe, and a lot of American soldiers.”

“It’s like a miracle happening every day,” said Korn, who along with her husband Yoav Korn help out with fundraising and community awareness, as well as the odd task.

“[We] cook, carry, shop, clean,” she said. “[We do] whatever needs to be done.”

Other locals chip in when needed, giving the Chabad House – which was established with the help of a sizable grant from the Rohr Family Foundation – the feel of a truly organic community.

Back in the spring, when the Litzmans’ shipping container filled to the brim with kosher-for-Passover food got held up at customs, it was Cohen who managed to get it released.

“Mr. Cohen doesn’t talk a lot, he just acts,” said Mussy Litzman.

Litzman, who just gave birth to a baby boy on Tuesday, was planning on doing the majority of the cooking for the upcoming holiday. Community members, including the Korns, are taking care of the cooking. (A mohel who is flying in from Israel is slated to perform the new baby’s circumcision on the first day of Rosh Hashanah.)

As an aside, Osher Litzman – who bought a cow to provide the Jewish community with rabbinically-supervised milk once a month – noted that a recent planning meeting in advance of the High Holidays filled a room “from wall to wall.” Hundreds are expected to attend the services, including Caspi and Canadian Ambassador Ted Lipman.

“This is 100 percent ourselves,” said Cohen. “This is a bunch of us putting our heads together to make a community.”