The dedication of a new Sefer Torah is always a cause for celebration. But for the small yet proud Jewish community in South Korea, just such a dedication Sunday meant so much more. Not only did it cap the community’s recent unprecedented growth, it welcomed what for Jews elsewhere in the world is almost a given: a Sefer Torah of their own.
Often a Sefer Torah – which typically costs in excess of $10,000 and can cost as much as $30,000 – is donated by generous individuals in honor or in memory of a loved one, but according to Rabbi Osher Litzman, the South Korean Torah was funded by the community members themselves.
“We have been blessed with donations from locals, visitors and friends who have helped to cover a significant amount of the expenses,” said Litzman, who is still fundraising for the project. “The goal is that everyone in the community will have a share.”
Community member Pierre Cohen-Aknine agreed.
“It is a blessing for the community,” stated Cohen-Aknine, 53. “Everyone feels joy, pride and a sense of responsibility attached to owning such a diamond.”
Originally from Paris, Cohen-Aknine first came to Korea 30 years ago for his military duty at the French Embassy. Now a businessman who owns and runs three companies, Sunday’s celebration was his first-ever Torah dedication.
Though Litzman’s Chabad House in Seoul has been using borrowed Torah scrolls since the rabbi and his wife Mussy Litzman arrived in 2008, having a Torah scroll of its own means the world to members such as Cohen-Aknine.
He likened it to attending a wedding ceremony at Mount Sinai.
“It’s like living for the first time,” said Cohen-Aknine, who imagined what it must have been like to receive the Torah thousands of years ago. “If we were born only for that moment, it would suffice.”
Shelly Korn, who moved to Korea almost five years ago with her husband Yoav Korn, said that “the arrival of the scroll symbolizes an official recognition and validation of the Jewish community here.
“It also represents the initiation of a new phase in the spiritual development of the Jewish community here, which seems to be rapidly growing and evolving,” she added.
Korn should know. The native Israeli and her South African husband – who is on the Chabad House’s board of directors – were part of the initial group responsible for bringing the Litzmans to this part of Asia. The couple’s son, Raphael, who was born in South Korea and was circumcised at the Chabad House, now attends the daycare there.
“We volunteer, donate and promote the organization in and way we can,” said Korn, 39. “It’s safe to say that Chabad is an integral part of our daily life here. In fact, we probably wouldn’t have stayed as long as we did if they weren’t around.”
Korn, a human resources director currently on sabbatical, explained that the local Jewish community is comprised of many students and professionals who come for short-term assignments lasting about three to nine months. Others, she explained, come with their families for a two to five month work assignment. Only a few live in Seoul permanently.
“My family and I have never been to an event like this before and we are all very excited about it,” stated Korn, whose husband is an English professor at Hanyang University.
The celebration was also a first for Stephen Barton.
“I am very excited because it is such an important occasion,” said the 57-year-old, adding that writing a Torah scroll is counted as the last of its 613 commands, because doing so “contributes to the permanence … [and] continuation of Judaism.”
Barton, who moved to Korea from Hong Kong in January with his wife Ursula Tamar, said that having a Torah scroll to call their own “creates a stronger foundation for the community.”
Litzman couldn’t agree more.
“Since our arrival in 2008 we have been using Torahs on loan from other Chabad Houses and now, finally, we are proud to welcome our very own,” said the rabbi.
The Torah scroll was paraded down the streets of Seoul – from the Grand Hyatt Hotel to the Chabad Jewish Community Center — with great fanfare by hundreds of people, including the Israeli ambassador and visiting rabbis from China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Thailand and Israel.
According to Barton, an engineer who is involved in business management with the petrochemical industry, the Torah dedication “affirms that the hard work and commitment so far of Rabbi Osher Litzman and his wife Mussy will in fact be everlasting.”
Prior to their arrival almost four years ago, Jewish life in Korea was limited to the boundaries of the American army base, explained Litzman. Since World War II, a Jewish chaplain regularly attended to soldiers’ spiritual needs and opened up High Holiday services to others.
“The Torah is our road map,” said Barton. “It is our Constitution.”