February 20, 2019

Koreans study Jewish family values, traditions and history as secrets to longevity

Thirty-five Korean ministers and professors visited the Los Angeles Jewish community last week, sitting in on high school Torah classes, attending morning prayers, joining a Shabbat meal and studying Jewish texts with local rabbis.

All devout Christians, these students of Judaism hailed not only from South Korea, but also from Korean communities in Russia, China, South America, Canada and across the United States.

They were not interested in converting to Judaism or in proselytizing Jews, but rather were here to learn the secret to Judaism’s survival.

“Jews successfully conveyed the Torah, the traditions, the history — especially the history of suffering — and the family values based on Torah for 3,000 years with no generation gaps,” said the group’s leader, Yongsoo Hyun. “The Christian people lost the value of how to raise children who are holy. We are recovering that history to spread it all over the world.”

Hyun, 62, a Presbyterian minister and professor who moved to the United States in 1975, has spent the last 18 years studying the Jewish community and spreading his Jewish gospel from his Mar Vista-based Shema Education Institute.

This is the ninth annual tour of Los Angeles Hyun has led, the culminating event of a three-semester course attended by 400 students each year at locations around the world. Hyun says 3,000 Koreans have graduated his class, paying $350 a semester, and he believes about 3 million people have been affected by his teachings through seminars led by his disciples or by reading one of his 22 books on Judaism, which have sold hundreds of thousands of copies in South Korea.

Hyun focuses on family, jumping off the biblical idea of keeping three generations together — as in Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, or the Torah’s refrain of “you and your children and your children’s children.”

But some Jews might not recognize the Judaism Hyun teaches. He speaks of a Judaism with intact families and no faulty transmission lines between parent and child. He speaks of Jewish Nobel laureates gaining their wisdom through Jewish studies, though most did not have a Jewish education.

His understanding of Judaism derives almost exclusively from observance of Orthodox families and studying with traditional rabbis. He believes the father is primarily responsible for transmitting texts and traditions to children, with the mother being responsible for the family’s emotional well-being and helping the father.

“I don’t get high grades in modern feminist literature, but I don’t think this division of labor is clear cut. Both parents contribute appreciably to both the intellectual and the emotional training of their children,” said Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, who has been Hyun’s mentor. “It is partially Dr. Hyun’s reaction coming from a very man-centered society, where these divisions of labor still exist, and he thinks he spots them in traditional Judaism, but I don’t see them in my home or in my community.”

Adlerstein, a professor of Jewish law and ethics at Loyola Law School, said Hyun is as loyal a friend as the Jewish community and Israel will find, as well as a personal friend. Hyun pursues Jewish knowledge assiduously, and he knows more about Jewish texts and traditions than most Jews.

The visitors to Los Angeles, many of whom brought their families, toured the Museum of Tolerance, Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills, the Skirball Cultural Center, American Jewish University and YULA Boys High School and went on a shopping spree at 613 The Mitzvah Store before participating in a commencement ceremony at the JJ Grand Hotel in Koreatown at the end of their weeklong stay.

Koreans often compare themselves to Jews — a beleaguered people from a small country surrounded by enemies, which is, like ancient Israel, divided in two. Their brothers in North Korea are persecuted, while millions of Koreans in the Diaspora — and even those in the increasingly westernized South Korea — struggle to maintain their traditions and a standard of excellence for their children.

Hyun’s interest in Judaism began in 1990 while working toward his Ph.D. in education at Biola University, a Christian school in Orange County. As part of his studies, he was moved by what he saw as the God-centered nature of Jewish education, compared to the student-centered nature of classical American education.

He started taking classes at the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University), but was turned off by the liberal approach he found there. He switched to Yeshiva University of Los Angeles and, after some persistent nudging, ended up talking with Adlerstein, who was teaching there at the time.

Adlerstein, currently director of interfaith affairs at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, invited Hyun to his home for Shabbat dinner. Now Hyun and his wife — and often dozens of Hyun’s guests — regularly attend Adlerstein’s Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Shabbat meals.

Hyun set up the Shema Education Institute in 1992, and has since become something of a cult figure among his followers in South Korea and in the Korean Diaspora.

“We have had great leaders like Moses, and Paul in the New Testament, and Dr. Hyun’s discovery of the secret of Jewish survival is one of the greatest discoveries in human history,” said Yeong Pog Kim, with Hyun translating.

Kim has 2,000 members at his Presbyterian Church of Love and Peace near Seoul, and he said he is slowly introducing them to Jewish family values and educational methods.

He believes the Jewish give and take between teacher and student can revolutionize staid Korean classrooms. And it will make families stronger, as husbands learn to respect their wives and spend more time with their children.

Like many of Hyun’s students, Chi Nam Kim, a pastor in Toronto, has modified how he observes the Lord’s Day. Now, his wife lights candles every Sunday, and he says a prayer over the wine and the bread, and blesses his children and wife, all dressed in their best traditional clothes.

Chi Nam Kim explains this commitment by quoting Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s observation, “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.”

One student, Jin Sup Kim, prays three times a day, reciting the Shema and the biblical chapters that come after it, along with verses from the New Testament.

Jin Sup Kim is vice president of the divinity college at Baekseok University, a Christian school near Seoul with 30,000 students.

Kim earned a Ph.D. in ancient near eastern studies at Philadelphia’s Dropsie College, now known as the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. 

Kim, who teaches Hebrew, named his children Salome, Emet and Chesed, Hebrew words for peace, truth and kindness. During summer and winter breaks, he studies the Bible with his children for hours every day and encourages his 950 divinity students to do the same.

Kim leads a division of the Shema Education Institute and his own organization, the Korean Diaspora Revival Foundation, with offices in Israel aimed at drumming up Korean support for Israel and Judaism.

Addressing the anti-Semitism some Christian missionaries imported into Korea has been a clear benefit of the program.

“I didn’t like the Jewish people because of what they did to Jesus and Paul in the New Testament,” said Yeong Pog Kim, the minister from Seoul. “But now I turned to being pro-Israel. Now it opened my eyes to see the Jews positively, as a friend, and to see the Old Testament with a positive mind.”

In the past decade, South Korea has sent more tourists — mostly Christian pilgrims — to Israel than the rest of Asia combined, and the political relationship between the two countries continues to improve, according to the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

While Israel needs that kind of international support, and the attention the Shema Education Institute is offering the L.A. Jewish community is flattering, is this attention all positive?

Adlerstein isn’t so worried about the Koreans’ filtered interpretations of Judaism — they are, after all, not planning to become Jewish. But Adlerstein does worry about what some refer to as reverse anti-Semitism, something he has seen in many parts of the world.

“Putting Jews up on a pedestal for how they are educated or for their achievements is sort of nice, but at the same time, it sends the message that the reason why we like Jews or will tolerate them is because they act on a higher plane. And we don’t always act on a higher plane, and these positive stereotypes are not always true,” Adlerstein said. “We would rather be accepted because we are a people and all people deserve tolerance and acceptance.”

Still, there is something compelling about the expectation, Adlerstein said.

“As a traditional Jew, I can’t fight it too much because I do believe it is what the Ribbono Shel Olam [Master of the Universe] asks of us. He does ask of us to live on a higher plane, to be an or lagoyim [a light unto the nations]. I find this insistence in some people who are not anti-Semites, but who insist on Jews being different, to be disturbing and exhilarating at the same time.”