No Thin Ice At Winter Games


Should you be a devotee of daredevil downhill or graceful ice dancing and find yourself in PyeongChang, South Korea, next week for the Winter Olympics and in need of a nibble, the Litzmans have you covered.

Looking for kosher takes on a traditional Korean dish like baked sweet potatoes? Or roasted chestnuts? Or dumpling soup? Just pop into the pop-up restaurant the Chabad emissaries Rabbi Osher Litzman and his wife Mussy have set up in the mountainous city about 50 miles from Seoul to dispense some 8,000 pre-packaged kosher meals to Jews attending the Games.

Rabbi Litzman, an Israeli native who has served as the Chabad shaliach in Seoul for a decade, said he expects thousands of Jews from overseas, mostly tourists and journalists, to visit during the Games, which open on Feb. 8 and run through Feb. 23.

Despite the bellicose rhetoric from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Trump over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, “very few” people who have been in contact with him about attending the Games have indicated second thoughts about coming, Rabbi Litzman said in a telephone interview; they include the young rabbinical students who will help run Jewish activities in South Korea for the next two weeks. (In a bid to ease tensions, the two Koreas announced recently that North Korea would send a delegation to the Games.)

Those who “have decided to come, will come,” Rabbi Litzman said.

That can certainly be said for the Israeli delegation, which is sending nine athletes (including seven figure skaters), its largest total to date.

Has Israel’s Olympic Committee considered withdrawing from the 2018 Games, as some countries have in light of the tensions on the Korean peninsula?

“No, no, no,” said Yaniv Ashkenazi, head of the Israeli Olympic delegation in Korea. “It does not concern us.” In a telephone interview with The Jewish Week, he said he has heard no reluctance from Israeli athletes about competing in Korea.

Trying to assuage fear, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach said recently that “there is not even a hint that there is a threat for security of the Games in the context of tensions between North Korea and some other countries.”

As at past Games, the host country and host organizing committee have taken extra measures to ensure security. The multibillion-dollar measures this year include setting up a cyber defense team to guard against a hacking attack from North Korea, deploying some 5,000 armed personnel in the areas of competition, and creating a new Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team.

Rabbi Litzman said he has worked closely with the Israeli Embassy in Seoul about security matters. He declined to discuss specific security steps he has taken.

“The threat of war between North and South Korea (or the U.S.) has been constant for over 60 years,” said Dave Hazzan, a Ph.D. candidate at York University in Toronto and former journalist, who has lived in South Korea “on and off” since 2002. “Though there has been a lot of bluster in the past year, it’s unlikely a war will break out any time, and I hope most Jews are wise enough to realize that,” he told The Jewish Week via email.

Do Jewish visitors have any reason to feel unsafe in South Korea?

“Absolutely not,” Hazzan said. “South Korea is a very safe, very welcoming country. Those who appear ‘visibly Jewish’ — i.e. with kipas, tzitzit, payot or the like — may get curious looks and questions. But the chances of running into an aggressively anti-Semitic individual or group of individuals is extremely unlikely. You’re far more likely to be attacked in Toronto than in Seoul, and Toronto is very safe.”

South Korea has been known for several decades as a country that is open to Jews, and fascinated by Judaism, with no indigenous anti-Semitism. Its Jewish population is estimated to be between 400 and 1,000, mostly consisting of diplomats and businessmen, teachers and students, and soldiers in the U.S. Army.

Some of the first Jews to visit the Korean Peninsula were Jewish soldiers in the 1904 Russo-Japanese War, followed a half-century later by U.S. Jews stationed there during the Korean War. A Jewish presence has continued ever since on U.S. military bases, and increasingly, with businesspeople in the country for work. Local Jews would gather at Jewish events held on U.S. military bases and led by a Jewish chaplain, though increased security over the years left many unable to participate.

The Litzmans, who established a three-story Chabad House in Seoul, call themselves the first full-time Jewish presence in South Korea outside of the U.S. military.

The couple will be aided during the Games by eight multilingual rabbinical students, who will conduct daily classes and seminars in the Olympic Village and set up a pair of tefillin booths near the competition sites.

“We will be all over the place,” said Rabbi Litzman, a veteran of the Israeli Army who is authorized to serve as a chaplain during the Games. He will hold a welcoming reception for the Israeli delegation and other Jewish visitors, some of whom have sought his assistance in arranging housing in South Korea.

The Chabad synagogue, which dedicated its own Torah scroll, funded by community members, in 2012, is also the site of a small Hebrew school for the children of expats.

The Litzmans said they will open two temporary centers in PyeongChang and host Shabbat meals during the three Friday nights of the Games.

The couple also plans to operate a Jewish room at the Olympic Village, stocking it with kosher food during the week and special food for Shabbat, including wine and challah on Fridays.

And if the kosher take on those baked sweet potatoes doesn’t do it for you, the Litzmans will have some popular Israeli fare for a touch of comfort food.

Related: These are three Jewish athletes to watch at the games.