The Rev. John Choi outside the New Jersey Logos Church
It has been many years since the United States was thought of as a melting pot – and, on the whole, that probably is a good thing. As with members of other ethnic minorities, Jews here appear secure in their double-barreled hyphenated identities. They do not want to lose their distinct boundaries and hard edges to blend in.
The gorgeous mosaic, however, is something else. That is the idea that does work – many cultures, each a gem, sparkling in a huge frame. And in the mosaic, you never know whom you will find yourself next to, and what reflections of each other you will be able to see. The mosaic is ever shifting, never static. It’s less a mosaic than it is a kaleidoscope.
This is the long way into a story about Jews and Koreans, about ways in which two cultures that come from entirely different parts of the world, grown out of traditions that have no common roots, can discover shared values.
It also is a story that explains why the Rev. John Choi of Ridgefield Park learned Hebrew in an ulpan at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly.
Choi has “been pastoring here,” as he puts it, at the New Jersey Logos Church in Palisades Park, for four years. The church is part of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, an evangelical organization that has had “missions to the Jews” in the past; New Logos’s worship services, however, are in Korean, and they are aimed specifically at Koreans.
“God strongly implanted the love I feel for Israel when I was young, during my high school days,” Choi said. “I studied the Bible, and I was convinced that God loves Israel and whoever blesses Israel is blessed. So when I studied the Bible, I fell in love with Israel and with everything about Israel.”
Choi grew up in Korea, but he came to New York from 1985 to 1987 to study biblical Hebrew and ancient near eastern studies at New York University. “I was the only Asian student there at the time,” he said. “I studied under Dr. Cyrus Gordon” – a well known and influential scholar of ancient language and near eastern culture. “Almost everyone in the class was a rabbi; two or three people were Christian pastors.” (He learned biblical Hebrew at NYU, but that is not the same as modern Hebrew – grammatically, idiomatically, and in many other ways. That explains Choi’s interest in taking the ulpan a quarter-century later.)
“Korean Christians are very interested in Israel,” Choi continued. “If you ask me who loves Israel the most, outside of Israelis and other Jews, probably my answer would be Koreans.
“Like Israel, Korea is a small country – not as small as Israel, of course, but still small. Korea has been under many many sufferings by surrounding nations, and it is similar to the history of Israel. Koreans developed the mentality that said that out of suffering comes something very wonderful, something you could not have expected before the suffering.”
Of course, that is a specifically Christian idea, and it must be acknowledged that Choi, as a Christian and especially as an evangelical, believes that salvation is through Jesus. As wonderful as Jews might be, an evangelical would say, still we are not saved. Choi does not deny that belief, but it does not seem relevant here. Regardless of how his denomination, the Christian and Missionary Alliance, perceives its mission (it even has an internationally active Hebrew-language branch headquartered in Israel itself), Choi’s religious outreach is toward Koreans, not Jews.
“Korean Christians believe that God is the God of Israel, and that God still is God of Israel,” he continued. “We believe that God still loves the physical Israel, the land of Israel, and that God loves the people of Israel. We still believe that God’s chosen people is Israel, not Koreans, not anyone else.
“Nations stand against Israel, but we are never against Israel. That is the general consensus of Korean evangelical groups. If you go to Israel, you will find lots and lots of Korean people, and some Chinese and other Asians. The churches bring them to the Holy Land for academic programs and religious ceremonies, so they bring thousands of people.”
Not incidentally, he added, “we also are helping the Israeli economy.”
Choi himself has yet to visit Israel – “probably I’ll go next year,” he said. “That’s why I learned in ulpan.” But one of his congregants, Jennifer Noh of Palisades Park, has been there – 10 times, in fact. Her latest visit, this spring, lasted two months.
“Before I first visited Israel in 2006, I didn’t even know where it was on a map,” Noh said. She was a travel agent, given the job of setting up a trip for a Korean minister who lived in Los Angeles and needed a New York contact. She did not know what to expect, but as soon as she got off the plane, Israel’s “indescribable beauty” struck her so strongly that “I almost cried. I knew that it was the Holy Land, and full of biblical locations, but the feeling I had was unexplainable. I’ve been all over the world, and I’ve been to many places that have beauty, but this was a totally different beauty, a physical and spiritual beauty combined. The spiritual part was amazing, but the physical also is very real. And there is everything – ocean, rivers, deserts, everything – in this tiny tiny land.
“Since then, I’ve been almost crazy about it. I started to study Jewish history, and the Bible, the Old Testament. And I studied Judaism, and modern Jewish history. I had lived in New York for a long time; I saw a lot of Orthodox rabbis in Brooklyn, and I worked with a lot of wholesalers before I started the travel agency, so I was pretty familiar with Jewish people, but since I visited your country, it was different.
“We have sent over 100 Korean pastors from all over the United States and Canada to Israel. My passion was almost a burden to me. I felt that I had to bring these people and show them what Israel is.”
Noh plans to study modern Hebrew at the JCC’s ulpan course, and she plans on returning to Israel.
Choi and Noh both hope to connect with the local Jewish community, as well. Joy Kurland, who is the director of the Jewish Community Relations Council at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, says her group shares that desire. The project is still at its very start, but she already has begun to plan ways to reach out to local Korean leaders, including Choi. She hopes that there will be more to report on the efforts in a few months. It is a natural move, Kurland said; the Korean community is one of the fastest growing in Bergen County, where the federation has its headquarters.(Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck, for example, has an entire department devoted solely to Korean outreach and rivaled only by its outreach to the area’s Jewish community.) “We have a lot of common values, so there is a lot of potential there. Knowing your neighbor, really understanding your neighbor, helps us work together to better our society, and it really helps in areas of common and mutual concern.”
“If we can develop some kind of program that can expose Korean people to Jewish heritage, culture, history, and probably basic language, then many more people can participate in Israel,” Choi said, and that would be particularly useful “in the time of anti-Israel.”
“Lots of Korean pastors have the same heart that I have,” he said. “It’s not only me.”
Noh agrees. “In Korea, there are a lot of prayer meetings where they pray for Israel and for the peace of Jerusalem,” she said.