January 6, 2005
L.A.‘s Jews, Koreans Work to Build Ties
Shema Educational Institute's Web site shows photos of typical Orthodox Jews: a father studying with his sons, a frum mother holding her infant and a man unrolling a Torah scroll. But in that last photo, the Orthodox man is standing next to a Korean man in traditional Korean dress.
Koreatown's Shema Educational Institute advocates Orthodox ideals as guideposts for Korean families. With its home page declaring, "Shema, O' Israel!" amid otherwise Korean-only Web pages, the institute brings together Koreans and Jews in the historically barren plain of interethnic relations between the two groups in Los Angeles.
"Jews are very successful in passing on their history, from Abraham up until now," said the Rev. Yong-Soo Hyun, Shema Institute creator.
Los Angeles' Jews comprise America's second-largest Jewish community, and the city's Koreans are the largest Korean diaspora outside of Asia. Despite many cultural similarities, they know little of each of other.
"This is a community we need to understand and appreciate; I would like to see this more on our Jewish radar screen," said Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, executive vice president of the Southern California Board of Rabbis.
The Rev. Jim Bob-Park is the pastor of Young Nak Presbyterian Church, one of the Korean community's largest, most influential congregations. He readily admits that Koreans and Jews don't get together much socially or in any clergy-community relations settings.
"Actually, I haven't had any interaction with the Jewish community," Park said. "My seminary Hebrew language learning ... was the last interaction I had with the Jewish community. That was about 15 years ago. I run into Jewish leaders here and there, not that I'm working with them or anything."
Yet like many Korean Americans, Park talks admiringly of Jewish culture's emphasis on family, education and professional careers, especially law, medicine and finance. And like Jewish immigrants in past decades, Korean Americans are trying to engage the growing divide between the older, more conservative first-generation immigrants who built Koreatown and the younger, more Americanized, more liberal second generation.
"Koreans are starting to learn from Jewish people," said Paul Kim, 28, a program coordinator at the Korean American Coalition, the Korean communitity's version of The Jewish Federation. "High emphasis on education, high emphasis on marrying one's own and strong history of oppression. Koreans were very oppressed by Japanese and Chinese, because for thousands of years, Koreans were the chess piece, the pawn for all the surrounding countries."
His description of his first days as an Occidental College freshman sounds like something that Jewish students might say about life on campus.
"Within five minutes, all the Koreans were hanging out together," he said. "Instantaneously, when I see another Korean, I just bond with him."
Kim oversaw a small Korean-Jewish "Talking Tolerance" gathering earlier this month. "The Second Generation: Preserving Our Culture," sponsored by the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Project Next Step and funded by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles on Dec. 8, attracted a couple of dozen people, evenly split between Jews over 35 and Koreans under 30.
What the Jewish community looks like to insiders is certainly not the same as how it appears to outsiders.
"I feel that your community is much more unified," said one young Korean American business executive, prompting several Jews to hold back their laughter among knowing glances. One of the evening's organizers explained that not all Jewish organizations are exactly embracing each other.
Marrying outside one's own culture remains as controversial among Koreans as it does among Jews. After dating Caucasian women, Kim said he will someday marry a Korean American.
"There's so many ways we can relate to each other," he said. "I used to always get upset at my parents because they'd say I have to marry a Korean, but I realized they're just looking out for me."
Both communities share an interest in a place outside the United States. For the Jews, it's Israel, and for the Korean Americans, it's human rights in North Korea. (Although Korean Americans are a large, theologically conservative presence in the Presbyterian Church (USA), they have not allied themselves with activists calling for divestment of Presbyterian funds from companies doing business with Israel.)
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of Project Next Step for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who led the "Talking Tolerance" discussion, often hosts Hyun's Shema Institute students for Shabbat in his home. The rabbi said he is fascinated at how Korean American parents enroll in Hyun's Orthodox-fueled family values seminars.
"They pay their own way and come to Los Angeles and study Judaism," he said.
Koreans here were impressed with the Wiesenthal Center and its one-day, Sept. 13 conference on North Korea, which attracted many local Korean Americans and Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs.
"That was almost a watershed experience for the Korean community," Adlerstein said. "And we wound up as a facilitator of the different views of the Koreans."
Also important, Adlerstein said, is how the Wiesenthal Center has been training Korean Americans opposing North Korea's dictatorship, teaching them the tactics used by Jewish Americans who spent years speaking out for Soviet Jews.
"Something we had developed decades ago as a Jewish response to a Jewish problem," he said, "was something that created a paradigm that we're now able to share with people from an entirely different culture."