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Jews in the Woods

We’re currently in the big “yaaaaar jewish holiday seasonnnn” that comes around every Fall. Cause Jewish holidays are based on the lunar calendar, the dates fluctuate from year to year. During my first year in Korea, Yom Kippur was on a day when we only had a half day of school and midterms, so I wasn’t even teaching and it was easy to ask for the day off. This year, Rosh Hashana fell smack in the middle of the week. My school (in its infinite kindness) allowed me to take two vacation days to celebrate the holiday in style.

There are essentially 2 synagogues in Seoul (Chabad and the US Army chaplaincy). Ya know the saying, 2 Jews, 3 opinions? Yeah. There’s a lot of that. For the high holidays they merged together to form an uber-metch-synagogue out in the woods. WHAT? Jews in the woods?! Apparently the military has a religious retreat center in this uberforesty part of HanNam-dong with a nice chapel and bunk-bed-filled-communal-bathroom-sporting dorms. Everyone who wanted to got to stay there for free, eat for free and get eaten alive by mosquitoes for the low low cost of nothing! With the weather being an ongoing stream of monsoontyphoon I chose communal bathrooms over my normal hour long commute to temple.

The community brought in two young guys (both with connections to my hometown, which made for some Jewish geography) to help lead services and read torah. I’m gunna say with honesty that normally I don’t do so well on the high holidays. It’s hard to feel kavana (spirit//feeling) when you’re looking at a four hour service+sermons; it can feel more like an obligation to be there than anything else. Go to high holiday services, get ya JewCard(tm) renewed for a new year. This was the first year that I felt the words resonate with me and was able to appreciated the whole experience. When we blew the shofar, the symbolic trembling of our souls, I felt this deep connection to Jews across Asia, all of us celebrating the new year together. The guys also did a great job of leading, especially the Friday night services. There were about 100 people there on the first days, and it tricked down to the twenties as the holiday weathered on.

Being a Jew in Seoul is different from being a Jew in Ann Arbor. Where in the the states ya can say “I’m a Jew” and people have some kinda idea about what your taking about, a lot of Koreans aren’t really sure. I get a lotta –

Are all Jews Israeli? (no) What, there are Jews today? (yes) Do all Jews look white like you? (no)

– which I don’t mind at all. Its kinda sad though that Jewish life in Korea is really all about services and not volunteering or eating or social stuff. I’m sure that there’s more Jews here who’d want to connect, but maybe just not in a go-to-temple kinda way. There’s just not that much in way of options in Korea.

One thing that my thoughts kept drifting to as I was praying was the oft repeated Jewish mantra, ‘next year in Jerusalem.’ I have really complicated feelings about Israel in general, but I’m hoping that that’s where I’ll be next year, studying at Pardes. Maybe, maybe not. It’s what my mosquitoe bitten legs and way too Jewish heart want 😉

Happy New Year everyone! May we all be inscribed for a sweet year!