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Korean Christians Travel to New York With a Cause: Bringing Comfort to Jews

Observing biblical injunctions regarding the Israelites, a new evangelical group throws a festival in the world’s second Jewish capital

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The Shalom Yerushalayim Cultural Festival at the Free Synagogue of Flushing in Queens on August 15, 2013. (Courtesy of Korean Christians for Shalom Israel)
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The gathering had all the hallmarks of a typical pro-Israel event: Israel’s national anthem was performed. Rabbis and other machers in attendance were acknowledged from the stage. Light kosher refreshments were served afterward. There was even a trio of black-hatted ultra-Orthodox Jews from the anti-Zionist Neturei Karta sect protesting outside.

But the program at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Lower Manhattan, on a warm August evening, wasn’t put on by a Jewish organization. The two-hour event was the kickoff to the 2013 Shalom Yerushalayim Cultural Festival, a three-day, three-borough summertime extravaganza organized by a brand-new group: Korean Christians for Shalom Israel.

So, everything else about the program was far out of the ordinary. “Hatikvah” was sung not only in Hebrew but also in Korean. The hundreds of attendees packed into the museum’s auditorium were treated to a Tae Kwon Do demonstration by martial artists whose robes sported South Korean and Israeli flags. Miss Korea 2011 modeled in a fashion show of traditional Korean costumes, and an operatic interpretation of the biblical story of Isaac and Rebecca was performed with dialogue in Korean, songs in English. The performers and most of the audience in the rented hall were Korean.

The evening’s climax came when three pastors—Korean, Chinese, and Japanese—were invited onstage along with a Holocaust survivor and Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, the executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis. The pastors presented their two Jewish interlocutors with an extraordinary “Statement of Repentance and Hope” endorsed by Asian clergy members. The statement was read aloud by the Rev. Jaehoon Lee, leader of the Onnuri Church, an influential Seoul mega-church that claims 60,000 members in branches around the world. “We have come here today because we believe God will keep all the promises he made to the Jewish people, his Chosen People,” the statement went. “Most of all, however, we have come here today with a heart of repentance.” After expressing contrition for 2,000 years of persecution—“the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Holocausts perpetrated in Christian nations, etc.”—the statement’s signatories vowed to support Israel, fight anti-Semitism, and work on building “a repentance movement among all Christians.”

While less than a third of South Korea’s population is Christian, the country is sometimes called an evangelical superpower. Until fairly recently, South Korea sent more Christian missionaries abroad than any country other than the United States. And like their American counterparts, Korean evangelicals often feel very warmly toward the State of Israel—none more so than Mansuk Song, the Seoul-based founder of Korean Christians for Shalom Israel. During the opening festivities, a video played in which Song, accompanied by the mournful theme music from Schindler’s List, recounted in Korean how the existence of modern Israel had led him to question traditional Christian teachings that God had forsaken the Jews, and the shame he felt learning about the Holocaust and historic Christian anti-Semitism. “I made a decision to spend the rest of my life to comfort the Jewish people,” he said.

This idea of comforting Jews, I later learned, is inspired by Isaiah 40:1: “Comfort, O comfort My people, says your God.” But could even a biblical prophet have foreseen this exhortation someday being carried out in New York via fashion shows, martial arts displays, and bilingual biblical operas?

***

“Some Korean evangelicals are really, really big on Israel,” said Paul Lim, a historian of Christianity at Vanderbilt University. He cited a number of contributing factors, including relationships forged between Korean churches and Messianic Jews, the influence of pro-Israel American evangelicals on their Korean counterparts, and a secular admiration of Israel’s democracy and economic dynamism. But Lim suggested that pro-Israel sentiments are also related to a broader Korean appreciation of Jewish achievement: he pointed to the widespread popularity of educational books purporting to present the wisdom of the Talmud. “There’s a lot of speaking in the Korean churches in the States and also in Korea about how Koreans need to learn from the Jews,” he said.

The festival appeared to be the first glimpse that New York Jews were getting of this Korean enthusiasm for Israel. “This is a special celebration of our love of the Jewish people and the State of Israel,” said festival emcee S.J. Jung, who joked that his initials stood for “Shalom Jerusalem.” He was speaking on the festival’s third and final night, at the Free Synagogue of Flushing, located in the heart of a now overwhelmingly Asian neighborhood in Queens. Jung informed the mixed Jewish-Korean crowd that 120 people had traveled all the way from South Korea to participate in the festival, with another 70 coming from other parts of the United States. Some participants, he said, had even flown in from Israel.

The Queens program was similar to the one at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, except the operatic performance was about the Book of Esther. But in the large sanctuary of the Reform synagogue, lined with stained-glass windows, emotions ran much higher. After the Asian pastors again delivered their statement of repentance, they shared warm embraces with the two rabbis on hand. “I could not ever imagine what this night would be. I could never imagine!” said Rabbi Albert Thaler of the nearby Temple Gates of Prayer. When Rabbi Michael Weisser of the Flushing Free Synagogue blessed the crowd in Hebrew, I saw Korean attendees grow teary-eyed. The program concluded with audience members dancing in the aisles—a mass Judeo-Korean hora amid a roomful of Israeli and South Korean flags waving frenetically in the air.

At a reception afterward in the synagogue’s basement, I spoke with a pair of Korean pastors whose churches co-sponsored the festival. Festival participants, while all evangelicals, were diverse in terms of denomination, noted the Rev. Andrew Kim of the United Breakthrough Ministries Church in Southern California. “Korean Christians, we never united before, but because of Israel, when we realize it, we became one,” he said. “That is a marvelous thing for us.” The pastors explained that they have found common cause in their repudiation of “replacement theology,” a traditional view—still prevalent within Korean Christianity—that God’s relationship with the church has superseded his covenant with the Jews.

By contrast, the pastors say they emphasize the central importance of God’s continued covenant with Israel. The proportion of Korean Christians who have embraced their Israel-focused approach is still quite small, the pastors said, but their numbers have grown rapidly over the past half-decade, something they attribute to divine intervention. “Four years ago, God awakened my heart for the people of Israel, and I began to study the Bible, and I began to preach that we must believe the restoration of Israel,” said the Rev. Benjamin Oh of the Love & Truth Church, which has branches in New Jersey and Long Island. Oh noted that Song was a “pioneer” in trying to spread this message, albeit one who, he added, was “very lonely until just recently.” Both pastors demurred when pressed for a worldly reason why the message preached by Song for so many years was suddenly being taken up more widely. “In five years’ time, God is opening our eyes,” Kim said. “It’s not by man’s work. It’s by Spirit.”

Before I could leave the reception, one of the organizers handed me a complimentary gift that was given out to attendees, a small decorative jewelry box accompanied by a note: “On behalf of KCSI members, I thank you for coming to this event. Through this event, the servants of the Almighty G-d experienced the awesome G-d who truly loves His chosen people!” It was signed by Mansuk Song.

***

I arrived the next day around noon at the Brooklyn Tabernacle, a multiracial mega-church with a Grammy-winning gospel choir where I had arranged to meet Mansuk Song for an interview. Inside the church’s cavernous auditorium, the Korean festival-goers were taking part in a worship service. This gathering was not listed in the English-language pamphlets promoting the festival, which made sense since the service was almost entirely in Korean, with one notable exception.

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Korean Christians Travel to New York With a Cause: Bringing Comfort to Jews

Observing biblical injunctions regarding the Israelites, a new evangelical group throws a festival in the world’s second Jewish capital