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
The mic was briefly given to a white-haired man later identified to me as Joseph Shulam, an Israeli Messianic Jew who leads the Netivyah Bible Instruction Ministry. According to its website, the ministry is engaged in a building project that would “produce for the first time in two thousand years a Synagogue of Jewish Disciples of Yeshua in Jerusalem.” Speaking in English, Shulam told the assembly about posters in central Jerusalem calling for protests against his group’s building, eliciting groans from the audience. “I want our Korean brethren to pray now so that God will turn what they think is a curse to become a blessing for the Lord and for His people,” he said, to a swell of applause.
As the service neared its end, Song walked over to meet me. While the Korean worshippers danced yet another hora, he led me to the church’s basement cafeteria. A soft-spoken and serious man with a full head of dark hair and wire-rim glasses, Song looks much younger than his 72 years. Speaking clear but imperfect English, he pronounced himself very satisfied with how the festival had gone. “We expected only a few Jews would come,” he said, not the hundreds who had shown up over the festival’s three days.
Song recounted how he first came to his passion for Jews a quarter-century ago, when a member of his creationist science group returned from studying in Israel and declared that God was restoring Israel in keeping with his covenant with the Jews. Song initially reacted with anger; at the time, he still believed that the church had replaced the Jews as the new Israel. But then Song began examining his friend’s claim. “I am a mathematician,” he told me. “I got a Ph.D from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. So, I’m always looking for the right answer.”
Seeking answers in the Bible, Song realized that he had been wrong. “I believe in the Bible as God’s word, and then by the grace of God, my eyes opened and see that Israel is Israel, and we are gentiles, and as gentiles, we did very big mistake in the past 2,000 years,” he said. The former math professor has traveled the world to spread the gospel that God has not abandoned the Jews. He has visited Korean churches on six continents with this message, though he said it often wasn’t easy to find receptive audiences.
For someone who has spent so much time preaching about Jews, Song does not seem terribly well-versed in today’s Jewish world. When I wished him “mazel tov” on the festival’s success, Song asked what that meant, and he later explained that his Hebrew is limited: “I only just use ‘hallelujah,’ ‘amen.’ ” He also isn’t particularly interested in Judaism’s denominational diversity. “I don’t care much about the ‘secular’ Jew or the ‘Orthodox’ Jew. If he’s a Jew, he’s the chosen, God’s chosen,” he said.
One contemporary Jewish phenomenon that does interest Song is aliyah. Like many evangelical Christians, he believes we are living in end times and sees the ingathering of Jews in Israel as a precursor to the return of Jesus. Song suggested that God is making Israel more prosperous than America in order to lure Jews back to their biblical homeland. He also warns that America may face God’s wrath over abortion and homosexuality: “God hates it. So God will punish, definitely.”
Song, who is an elder in the Onnuri mega-church, is the president of the Korea-Israel Bible Institute, whose English-language website promotes two ministries: one focused on encouraging aliyah, the other devoted to intercessory prayer for Israel. The website lists 22 locales in five countries outside Korea where Korean Christians gather weekly to pray for peace and security for Israel. Song says that including in South Korea, there are approximately 100 such prayer groups in Korean churches around the world. I asked Song whether he prays for Jews to embrace Jesus. Song responded that the focus of his prayers for diaspora Jews is for them to return to Israel, where, paraphrasing Ezekiel 36:25, he explained, “God will just wash them.” Song reads this passage as indicating that Jews will accept Jesus after they return to Israel, something that he said he prays for.
He is alert to Jewish communal sensitivities regarding proselytizing, and in keeping with his commitment to Jewish comfort, he is adamant that Jews should not be pressured to accept Jesus. “They have been persecuted. Force will never do. We don’t want to make them more trouble or anything they don’t want,” Song said. “Just to give them love and support. We believe that all Christians should do that. That’s our purpose.” Song suggested that past Christian persecution of Jews was “Satan’s scheme so that Jews cannot come to the Lord.” He hailed the growth in adherents to Messianic Judaism, which he called “spontaneous all over the world,” adding that “nobody force them to.”
Other festival participants have affinities for Messianic Jews, too: Benjamin Oh’s church is hosting an October event titled “The People, the Land and the Future of Israel” sponsored with Chosen People Ministries, a group that aggressively proselytizes Jews in New York and around the world. Oh told me in a follow-up interview that he loves all Jews—whether Orthodox or Messianic—and that he personally is not sure whether it is the place of Christians to evangelize Jews, since he believes that God’s plan in the end is for the entire nation of Israel to be saved.
It’s a good bet that most of the Jews who enjoyed the Shalom Yerushalayim festival had little knowledge of the nuances of its organizers’ theological views or their ties to Messianic Jews. Then again, for all their biblically based philo-Semitism, some of the Korean festival participants did not know all that much about the Jews they were trying to comfort, either. At the Brooklyn Tabernacle, before my interview with Song, I spoke with a festival-goer from Seoul who told me he had never met a Jew before coming to New York. I expressed surprise when he said that he had taken his outreach efforts to Brooklyn’s Lee Avenue, the main commercial drag for Williamsburg’s fiercely anti-Zionist and famously insular Satmar Hasidic community. He acknowledged not being very warmly received there.
For Song and his colleagues, the Jewish people’s present-day diversity is overshadowed by its divinely mandated destiny. They view Jews, first and foremost, through the prism of the Bible, as lead actors in an already scripted covenantal drama. But whatever their eschatological motives, the festival organizers certainly seem sincere in their desire to reach out and repent for Christian anti-Semitism. There was talk of Korean Christians for Shalom Israel planning similar events for other Jewish communities, including in Jerusalem in 2017 to mark the 50th anniversary of the city’s reunification. “It will last until all over the world all the Christians bow to the Jews and really repent, and until we get forgiveness from the Jews,” Song promised.
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