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 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.
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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