Home Culture Shabbos in Seoul: The pleasures of shul in faraway places

Shabbos in Seoul: The pleasures of shul in faraway places

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Chabad in India. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

True story: late last year, on a trip to Asia, my wife and I found ourselves in Seoul, as Shabbat was fast approaching. Other than a chapel on the U.S. military base, which is off limits to civilians, there is only one synagogue on the entire Korean Peninsula. So the next morning, we set out to find Chabad of Korea. In its basement, I found a small minyan of about 12 men – and it turned out that I wasn’t the only one wearing a Winnipeg Jets kippah.

Going to shul in faraway places is one of the great joys of travelling. Attending services in remote parts of the world inevitably reveals unusual approaches to minhag, but the real gems come from interacting with members of fascinating local communities, and from making surprising connections to home.

In Seoul, the tiny minyan included people from Korea, West Africa, France, Israel and Canada – and those were just the ones I met. There were professionals like me who were passing through on business, expats who somehow found themselves making their lives in Seoul and one native Korean who had apparently converted to Judaism. Chatting with them over Scotch and cholent at kiddush allowed for incredibly rich insights into what it is like to live and be Jewish in South Korea.

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Shuls are the only places where this sort of engagement could happen. In Korea, this is literally the case, since Beit Chabad is the only Jewish building in the country. But even in other distant lands with a touch more Jewish infrastructure – such as a community centre, school or some other Jewish institution – shuls are the places that lay out the welcome mat, enabling strangers to interact intimately and providing an instant sense of home to travellers. In many ways, they really are the true Jewish community centres, even if there are no gyms or shvitzes.

It’s for that reason that, over the years, I’ve visited shuls in Dublin, Istanbul, Hong Kong, Nairobi and Addis Ababa, even if I haven’t bothered to go when I visit places like Montreal and Vancouver. There is just something special about going to shul in a far-off land.

Which takes me to yet another true story. Last month, I was in China, where I joined Kehilat Beijing for Friday evening services. Kabalat Shabbat services were held in a social hall with a portable, distinctly Chinese ark, complete with inlaid mother of pearl. The leader used his smartphone to keep track of the page numbers, and after davening, everyone paid cash for a non-kosher communal meal.

At the end of the service, the leader asked the newcomers to introduce themselves, so I said I was “Ben from Canada.” Immediately, a Chinese woman with a Magen David pendant waved at me with a big smile on her face. The service ended a few minutes later and she walked straight up to me, introducing herself as Zhu. It’s pronounced “Jew,” she explained.

It turns out that Zhu converted, married a Jewish lawyer from Toronto, had a couple of kids and moved to Kenora, Ont., of all places. Today, her family splits its time between Kenora, where they are one of the only Jewish families, and Beijing, where there are a few hundred Jews scattered among 22 million others.

Astonished, I began chatting with Zhu’s 20-or-so-year-old daughter, Shaindl, who spent her summers 10 minutes by boat from Kenora, at B’nai Brith Camp – the camp that I attended for many years, and where my own daughter will go this summer. We spent that Shabbat evening in China comparing notes about our month-long BB Camp canoe trips in and around the Lake of the Woods.

Then it was time to say my goodbyes. Zhu stopped me before I left and warmly invited me to their lakefront house in Kenora this summer when I pick up my daughter from BB Camp.

I just might go. If only Kenora had a shul…


Benjamin Shinewald lives in Toronto and serves on a variety of Jewish communal boards.