Before 2008, Rabbi Osher Litzman couldn’t have found South Korea on a map.
That was then. Now he’s the only Jewish address in Seoul — he and his wife, Mussy, co-direct the Chabad Jewish Community of Korea.
On November 25, at Chabad of Hackensack, Rabbi Litzman will tell the fascinating story of how he established the first permanent Jewish presence in South Korea. (See below.)
Chabad of Hackensack’s Rabbi Mendy Kaminker explained that Rabbi Litzman was his classmate at Kfar Chabad in Israel in 1999. The two Israelis went to Brooklyn together to continue their studies in 2001, and they have kept in touch since then.
Rabbi Litzman is in the New York area to attend the annual International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries, and that gave Rabbi Kaminker the opportunity to have him speak in Hackensack. “I am always in awe of his move with his family to a place that has absolutely no Jewish infrastructure and no rabbi at all until he arrived,” Rabbi Kaminker said. “In terms of the personal sacrifice and the enormity of the mission, his is an inspiring story that I wanted to hear, and I think others will want to hear.”
According to Chabad.org, some 4,900 Chabad-Lubavitch shluchim — emissary families — have established operations in 100 countries and territories, including all 50 states. “Besides North Korea, I think we have shluchim everywhere!” Rabbi Litzman joked over the phone from Seoul.
Growing up in a Lubavitch family meant being inculcated from a young age with the value of serving fellow Jews, he said. “It’s all about the idea of helping other people. Naturally, after my wife and I got married, we knew that sooner or later we would start looking for a post where we could help.”
The call came sooner than expected. Rabbi Litzman was a new father and in the middle of his military service in the Israel Defense Forces when a Chabad rabbi he knew in China called him. Israeli diplomats and businesspeople in Seoul were seeking a rabbi, the China-based rabbi said. Until then, they’d enjoyed the services of Jewish chaplains stationed on the U.S. Army base in Seoul, but the base was being moved out two hours outside the city.
“I think you fit the description,” the rabbi in China said to Rabbi Litzman.
First, Rabbi Litzman discussed the offer with his wife. Then he sent a message to Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, the director of the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries, indicating their willingness to take on the mission. “I wasn’t thinking then it would be right away; I was waiting to finish the army,” Rabbi Litzman said. “But Rabbi Kotlarsky said, ‘If you want to go, they really need you now.’”
He explained the urgency of the situation to his IDF commander, who helped him obtain an early release. He, Mussy, and their year-old daughter arrived in Seoul three weeks before Passover. “Luckily, there were many people here waiting for us to come,” he said. “The chaplain’s wife met us at the airport and people helped us shop and find a hotel where we could cook for Pesach. A local businessman gave us full access to his office and his secretary helped us with the paperwork of opening the organization. Thank God, we had a red carpet rolled out for us in the community.”
The Litzmans hosted 40 people at both seders that year. “Today we have triple that number,” Rabbi Litzman said.
Since 2008, the Chabad Jewish Community of Korea has moved to larger and larger quarters several times, and it has introduced more and more programs and services for Jewish residents, service members, business travelers, and tourists. “Our biggest challenge is finding the manpower and the time to do everything,” Rabbi Litzman said. “We have so many projects we took on ourselves and each one takes all of our might.”
Every week, Friday night services draw about 60 people, many of whom also are hosted at the Litzmans’ table. The Litzmans run adult-ed classes and a small nursery school, a kosher grocery store, a restaurant, and a Judaica shop. They designed, raised money for, and oversaw construction of Korea’s first mikvah, which opened recently.
“All of that is aside from paying bills, purchasing supplies, planning projects and taking care of legal things. We wear many, many hats,” Rabbi Litzman said. One of those jobs is fundraising, but sourcing donations has not been difficult, he added. “Money is not limited. Time is. We do what we are supposed to, and God gives us an abundance.”
Another challenge for all emissaries in remote places is providing a good Jewish education for their own children. The Litzmans now have eight, ranging in age from 13 years to three months.
Each morning after his own studies, prayer, and answering “urgent email and WhatsApp messages,” Rabbi Litzman teaches his kids for an hour. Starting at age four or five, they attend an online school together with many other children of shluchim, mainly in Europe.
Having a large family is quite unusual in Seoul, Rabbi Litzman said. “We were treated like VIPs in the hospital because there are few births here — 1.2 per family and going down,” he said. “Medical care is very good here. People come from other countries for treatment. Now we have two families here from Israel for treatment of ALS and we are helping them.”
Fortunately, the Litzmans are fluent in English, a language that most Koreans know. “Language is not an obstacle,” Rabbi Litzman said. “The biggest cultural adjustment was the different way of thinking and it takes time to digest it. For example, in Korea nobody is allowed to leave work before the boss. So our young staffers here expect me to leave first, and I have to explain that’s not how we do it. If you’re done with your tasks, you can go home.”
Mussy Litzman runs the preschool and does the cooking herself, “to make sure everything comes out tasty and healthy,” but procuring kosher supplies isn’t simple.
“Our food comes mainly from Israel,” Rabbi Litzman said. “We get a huge container before Passover with matzah and wine and everything else we need. We also have many travelers from the U.S. who offer to bring us orders. We import our meat from America. In Seoul we do have Costco, so we can get some products there.”
In the beginning they also had to “import” a mohel from Israel to perform a bris whenever a baby boy was born. “When our son was born, five days later another Israeli family had a child 300 kilometers away from here, and they were planning on having a doctor to come perform the bris,” Rabbi Litzman said. “The doctor said he could come in a month.”
The problem is that a Jewish circumcision is supposed to take place on the eighth day; delaying it makes the procedure more painful for the baby. It was fortuitous that the Israeli mohel already was in the country. “The couple called us for advice, and we said we would bring our mohel to their city. A group of 15 of us traveled there and made a whole celebration. It was divine providence that our son was born when he was or otherwise this child wouldn’t have had his brit on time,” Rabbi Litzman said. The mohel has moved to Hong Kong because of high demand for his services in the Far East, he added.
“We have a mission to go wherever needed,” Rabbi Litzman said. “I didn’t know anything about Korea, where it was, what the people were like, was it poor or rich. I just knew they needed a rabbi, and I went.
“But my main message is that people don’t have to go to Korea in order to be messengers of goodness. We can do that at home with our families and friends.”
What: “Our Man in Korea,” a special presentation by Korea’s only rabbi, Rabbi Osher Litzman
Where: Chabad of Hackensack, 280 Summit Ave., Hackensack
When: November 25 at 7:30pm
RSVP (required): (201) 503-3770 or ChabadHackensack.com/Korea
Refreshments will be served.