As the opening ceremony inaugurates the long-awaited XXIII Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, Rabbi Osher Litzman looks forward to a full house for Shabbat.
This weekend marks the first Shabbat of the Winter Olympics — there will be three in all over the 17-day event — and Litzman and his team of volunteers are ready for it.
Litzman is the head of Chabad-Lubavitch of South Korea, located in the capital of Seoul. In a phone call from South Korea, he said, “We expect many people to come and join us Friday night throughout the evening.”
“It’s very nice, very special,” Litzman said. “Many people are coming for Friday night prayers, Shabbat lunch, many people reserving meals.”
He said Jewish Olympic visitors are mainly coming from the US, with others coming from Europe.
“The numbers are growing,” he said. “We’ll also give lots of challah rolls to people so they can celebrate Shabbat. We have thousands of challahs ready.”
Not only will there be challah, there will also be phylacteries, Torah classes, and free coffee for visitors.
A hot coffee might be particularly desirable in the freezing climate of PyeongChang, although Litzman said that while the current weather is “quite cold,” things “could be worse.” And, he said, “It’s going to be lots of fun.”
South Korea has hosted the Summer Olympics previously — in 1988, in Seoul — but never a Winter Olympics, until now. Almost 3,000 athletes representing 90 countries will compete in the Winter Games this year, with some sports even beginning before the opening ceremony, such as curling, ski jumping, figure skating, and freestyle skiing.
One thing that’s developed between the Seoul Games and the PyeongChang Games is the presence of an organized Jewish community in South Korea, according to Litzman. This community was created in 2008, when Litzman and his wife, Mussy, arrived in Seoul to create Chabad Korea — and what he calls the country’s first synagogue.
Chabad is a Hasidic movement founded in the 18th century that has in later years focused on international outreach. Rabbi Litzman came to South Korea from Israel, where he was born and raised in Kiryat Malakhi.
“It was a little bit of a change to be there from Israel,” he said, “a different lifestyle and atmosphere, in my case, but in general, when you get a call in life, it doesn’t really matter where you are, you work to make it happen.”
Of South Korea, he said, “We are delighted we are here,” adding that he has received “a lot of positive response, people loving it and coming very often … becoming more observant, being happy with their Jewishness.”
Once the Litzmans arrived in Seoul, they reached out to the local Jewish community.
“Today, we have a kosher grocery store and restaurant, and some of our hallmark programs include community Shabbat and holiday meals, especially the Passover seders, which can attract more than 100 guests,” Litzman wrote in an email. “We also run a Hebrew school for the children of expats.”
He noted, “In addition to a few bar mitzvahs, as well as the first wedding, we recently celebrated the brit milah [circumcision] of a 35-year-old Jew who was born in the former Soviet Union, when this mitzvah was forbidden.”
He wrote that “[there] are a few hundred Jews living in South Korea, as well as thousands of Jewish tourists and businesspeople that visit annually.”
Now Litzman is welcoming the additional Jewish visitors who are coming for the Olympics.
“We have a team of volunteers, each with a command of multiple languages, to help with our additional programming due to the expected influx of Jews,” he explained.
“We are opening an additional temporary center, strategically located in PyeongChang; daily Torah seminars — ranging from the weekly Torah portion to in-depth Talmud study — will explore the Jewish message behind sports and the meaning of competition.
“We will collectively host Shabbat meals for nearly thousands of guests over the course of the three Friday nights of the Games. And our pop-up kosher restaurant is equipped to prepare pre-packaged kosher meals for people on the go,” he said.
Litzman must himself coordinate between Seoul and PyeongChang, which are a three-hour drive from each other. He visited the temporary center in PyeongChang last week to get everything in order.
“We have a team in shifts,” Litzman said. One team will “plan to be [in PyeongChang] till Tuesday, another group of volunteers is coming Tuesday …. We want to be there 24/7.”
He sees connections between Judaism, sports, and competition. “Judaism says we are to try our best in any area — study, connecting with God, or being a good family [member], husband or father, whatever it might be,” Litzman said. “When you’re driven, you have the motivation, you do more than what you normally do.”
As for the Olympics themselves?
“I barely know anything about sports,” Litzman said. “Of course, as an Israeli, I know nothing about winter. So I really don’t know too much.”
In addition to spiritual nourishment for visitors, Litzman will also look to provide culinary nourishment.
“It’s quite a challenge to have kosher food here,” he said. “We’ve made all the preparations.”
“There are limited resources,” he said. “Thank God, we’ve been able to make it, answer the demand. Chabad has a store and a restaurant. We send all our kosher meals to all the hotels, do catering, eat here on a daily basis. We just make it happen.”
While the Olympics represent an atmosphere of fun and excitement, they are not immune to geopolitical disputes. This year’s Games are taking place amid decades-long tensions between communist North Korea and democratic South Korea, dating back to the Cold War and continuing to today. However, the Olympics seem to have brought the two countries together in some ways. For example, they will field a combined women’s ice hockey team.
Of the thaw in tensions, Litzman said, “It looks like moshiach [the messiah] is arriving. There will be peace. It will extend not only to the Games but the rest of time. It’s one of the signs. When you make peace, for whatever reason, it’s a good thing.”