Our experience was just one of many, and we do not claim that what we state here is the definitive experience of Judaism in Seoul. However, we have tried to portray accurately what we found in order to give you an idea of what things will be like. We spent four days in Seoul, from a Friday to a Tuesday in August 2017, en route to Japan.
Seoul’s Jewish community consists of a small number of Anglo ex-pats and a fluctuating number of US military servicemen. Chabad’s centre in the Itaewon area of Seoul is the only functioning Jewish community centre and is where we chose to spend Shabbat.
The Chabad website has a list of hotels and guest houses which are situated close by and have some familiarity with guests who keep Shabbat. We recommend choosing one of these, as the knowledge and understanding of the needs of a religious Jew are almost non-existent in Korea, and there are many obstacles one would have to overcome to successfully keep Shabbat in some places. For example, when we considered booking a hotel not on this list, we discovered that not only was entry to the rooms via electronic card, but also leaving the room required an electronic keypad. Some hotels do not have stairs and require use of the lift, and you cannot rely on the staff’s level of English to be able to deal with situations.
We decided to stay at the IP Boutique Hotel, which is Chabad’s recommended hotel. If you book directly with the hotel (we simply emailed them through the website and confirmed everything this way) and explain you are staying at Chabad you can receive a discount. You should also request a room on a low floor (they may offer this anyway). The staff at the IP Boutique are extremely helpful, speak good English and understand the needs of those who keep Shabbat. Every time you enter the hotel on Shabbat, a member of staff will offer to escort you to your room and open the door via the electronic card (there is no regular key option).
You can enter the hotel main gate via a regular door, and there are stairs. In the room itself the light immediately as you enter will turn on automatically (all the others can be pre-set before Shabbat) and the toilet heater comes on automatically when you sit on it. Both of these issues do have halachic solutions.
The hotel is under 5 minutes’ walk from Chabad however it is very hard to find your way, partly because locals are unfamiliar with the Chabad house and partly because Google Maps does not offer walking directions in Korea. After getting lost on Friday afternoon and only finding the way due to bumping into another lost group of Jews, we have written the following instructions:
1. Turn left out of hotel
2. Very soon you will see a shop called ‘Friendly Fish Fun’ on the same side of the road as the hotel. It is on a corner with a side-road, which you should turn left onto.
3. Take the first right turn.
4. Take the first left turn, where you will see a restaurant called ‘New York Burger Place’ on the corner.
5. When you see a flag attached to a pole with ‘Chabad of Korea’ turn right and the house is on the left (there is a chanukiah above the gate).
In our view the hotel was not cheap however we felt that it was worth paying more and having an enjoyable Shabbat in a nice place than having the worry and concern of staying somewhere where a day of our holiday could be ruined, or compromised.
Meals & Minyanim: The Shabbat Experience
Having emailed the Rabbi to request to eat both Shabbat meals with them, we arrived on Friday night and made our way downstairs to the small shul. There was no minyan (though we were close, and sometimes they do have one), however we did not eat till late due to a lengthy shiur. Dinner itself was nice, and there were around 30 people including lots of young Israeli travellers.
The Shabbat morning service started at 10.00. There was a minyan (12 or 13 men), which finished at 13.30 due to there being a 15 minute discussion of each aliyah punctuating the leyening. After this there was a Kiddush, a break for Mincha and then lunch, which finished at around 15.00. They do not provide a formal seuda shlishit, though they are open to facilitating this. At the end of Shabbat there was no minyan for Ma’ariv but the Rabbi made Havdala for those present (and people came for a while after to make their own Havdala).
Overall we found Rabbi & Rebbetzen Litzmann to be very hospitable and we enjoyed our Shabbat there, although we felt that the experience is more catered towards the local community than tourists.
We wanted to use Shabbat to soak up the local atmosphere, rather than just spending it in home and shul, and this was very easy in Itaewon. The IP Boutique and Hamilton Hotels (another Chabad recommended hotel) are located on the main road in Itaewon, and serve as a good base to explore the area - simply walking around is an experience itself. As the area is home to the US military base, you are more likely to find people who can speak English and signs in English.
We decided to walk to the War Memorial of Korea, which is about 25 minutes’ walk from the IP Boutique. Given that finding your way through side streets is extremely hard, this walk is very easy as you just walk down the main road to get there, only needing to navigate one junction correctly. The museum is free and a fascinating window into the Korean War and how it affects South Korea today. The National Museum of Korea, also free of charge, is within walking distance however it takes around 35 minutes to get there from Chabad/the IP Boutique.
Chabad have a small shop in a room of their house, which has a relatively large variety of products such as cheese, soups and sweets. We bought our own food to Korea and did not take up this option. We did find a few confectionery products with a hechsher around Seoul, such as Haagen Dazs ice cream and cookies from America. The chain ‘Paris Baguette’ stocks one brand of kosher cookie.
Overall, although Seoul may not be one of the most popular destinations for religious Jewish travellers, you can definitely make it work and benefit from the many rich cultural experiences in South Korea.