Several years ago, a group of Korean Christians in New Jersey sought a concrete way to show their love for Israel and the Jewish people. Inspired by the words of Isaiah 40:1 — “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God” — they came up with a plan.
“We were praying for Israel, our minds and hearts were toward the Jewish people, but we didn’t know what to do except for just praying,” said Changene Danny Song of Tenafly, director of strategic planning for Korean Christians for Shalom Jerusalem. The nonprofit organization is based in Englewood Cliffs.
“So we said, why don’t we do a cultural festival? It’s a way of comforting Jewish people by inviting them, and for that moment, they can have fun watching the show.”
The festival, which includes traditional Korean costumes, music, drama, and dance, already has attracted large audiences at synagogues in New York City and Washington, D.C. On June 24, it will take place at the Fair Lawn Jewish Center.
Through these performances, “KCSJ wishes to build unity between the Jewish community and Korean Christians, and take a small but meaningful step towards promoting stronger international support for the peace and security of Israel,” according to the group’s website. It is also intended to be a venue where “deep repentance is expressed for the unspeakable atrocities committed to the Jewish people throughout history. It is a symbolic but sincere action in hopes of a restoration of brotherhood.”
Mr. Song said that his group advertises the upcoming event to Korean Christians throughout the world. Those who wish to participate fly to New York at their own expense. Between 100 and 150 performers and volunteers have flown in for previous shows.
“They do their offering and donation,” said Mr. Song, whose organization hosts the event.
KCSJ has a dual mission, he added. On one hand, it reaches out to churches, stressing the importance of Israel; on the other, “we approach Jewish people to form friendships, express love, and repent.”
Repentance is a big part of each festival. At the end of the program, a pastor takes the stage to announce what Mr. Song calls “a statement of repentance.” A rabbi then comes up and accepts the statement.
“Churches awakened to recognize the importance of Israel get involved every year,” Mr. Song said, noting that while his group began with the support of only a few churches, it now has dozens of them supporting its efforts. While outreach used to focus mainly on the Korean community, beginning this year, KCSJ will reach out to Chinese and Japanese churches as well.
“The show for next year will be different,” Mr. Song said. “A Chinese pastor will take the stage to announce the statement of repentance.”
The cultural festival, now in its third year, has been very successful, he continued. “At first, we were afraid that we wouldn’t get many Jewish people. We were told that the Jewish community is tightly bonded, and it would be hard to bring in an audience. Since our budget is tight, we could do limited advertising.”
They did receive help, however, from several rabbis, including Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis.
“Rabbi Potasnik helped us a lot,” Mr. Song said. Indeed, the group’s website includes a quote from Potasnik, saying that “If we had people like these who would stand up during the Holocaust, maybe my family and so many others would have been saved. These are people who are not afraid to come forward and to raise their voice to support for the state of Israel.”
At first, Mr. Song said, the rabbis he approached were skeptical.
“They were cautious of these events because Christian communities in the past approached them to say we love you but always had a hidden agenda to convert them or to have them do something according to a Bible prophecy. They were suspicious.
“But they gave us a chance,” he said, and the results have been extremely positive. While the Korean group was told in each community that turnout might be low, attendance actually was quite high. At a Brooklyn event, “the congregation was overcrowded. There were 1,500 people. We were amazed. Now we want to go to all communities.”
YouTube and social media have helped as well. Thanks to a YouTube video, the festival has been invited to Australia.
Mr. Song said the purpose of the festival is for “Jews to feel happiness, have a good time, and feel the show was nice.” Given that there is not much interaction between Jewish and South Korean communities, he also hopes that a friendship will ensue, where members of the two communities “will shake hands and talk about ourselves.”
Rabbi Ronald Roth, religious leader of the Fair Lawn Jewish Center, where the festival will take place, said that he received an email from KCSJ, and then he called the rabbis in those congregations where the group had previously performed.
“It sounded interesting,” he said. Not a stranger to evangelical Christian groups performing pro-Israel programs — his previous pulpit was in Nashville, Tennessee — he was intrigued by the mission of KCSJ, “which has positive feelings toward the Jewish people and feel very positive toward the state of Israel. They feel terrible about the Holocaust and have said the Christians have to take responsibility and apologize for the lack of protest by churches” during that time.
Noting that the group does not have that much familiarity with individual Jews, he said, “they are trying to change that.” And because there is a large Korean Christian community in New Jersey, “we felt strongly that this would be important to help us create connections.”
Rabbi Roth said he spoke with Rabbi Bruce Lustig of the Reform Washington Hebrew Congregation, which recently hosted the cultural festival and plans to invite the group again.
“He was very positive about it,” Rabbi Roth said, affirming his belief that KCSJ has neither a political nor a religious agenda.
The rabbi said the festival will be “an extravaganza — a big production. The effort they’re putting into this is tremendous, and it’s free and open to the public. They are assuming the costs of production. That is an indication of how strongly they feel.”
Among other events, the festival will feature a tradition Korean costume fashion show; a nonverbal “nanta” performance, integrating Korean tradition rhythms with comedy and drama; a musical performance, and a Taekwondo martial arts dance.
“We as Jews should recognize that we have allies in the Christian community,” Rabbi Roth said. There are strong supporters of Israel in the Christian community, “especially here in northern New Jersey. There are Christians who when they read the Bible recognize that this is the story of our people and take it seriously as a precursor to their religion. They have a strong love of the Jewish people and the State of Israel.” Today, when Israel is the target of worldwide efforts to isolate it, this is especially important, he said.
“It will be a spectacular, memorable evening,” Rabbi Roth concluded.
What: Shalom Yerushalayim Cultural Festival
When: Wednesday, June 24, 7:30-9:30 p.m.
Where: Fair Lawn Jewish Center, 10-10 Norma Ave., Fair Lawn
For information: Call the synagogue at (201) 796-5040 or go to its website, fljc.com