Taking a Cue From Jews’ Survival

Culture: Minister studies Orthodox Judaism to teach Korean Americans how to educate children, help churches thrive.

The Rev. Yong-Soo Hyun says God called him to abandon a well- paying engineering career 20 years ago in favor of Christian ministry.

So what is he doing shepherding a group of Korean visitors around Southern California to attend a Shabbat dinner, an Orthodox Jewish temple and a lecture by a Jewish rabbi on how to keep children holy?

Hyun, 53, may be the biggest booster of traditional Jewish education in all of Korean America.

It is, he tells you, the antidote to the loss of cultural identity and religious grounding he sees in successive generations of Koreans here.

So the minister now writes books, conducts tours and has even opened the Shema Education Institute to teach Koreans the Jewish “secrets of survival.”

“For Korean churches to survive in America, we have to successfully pass down the word of God from generation to generation, just as Jews have done since the time of Moses,” said Hyun, a short, dynamic man with an easy grin. “We have to learn the secrets of the Jews.”

Hyun, who immigrated to the United States in 1975 at age 28, says he sees several parallels between Korea and Israel.

Both, he says, are small nations surrounded by large and sometimes menacing neighbors.

Both, he says, prospered when their people honored God and became imperiled when they did not. The Israeli captivity in Babylonia, he says, mirrors the Korean colonization by Japan.

His fascination with traditional Judaism was sparked 12 years ago, when he was a doctoral student at Biola University. He was studying the philosophy of Christian education and wrote a term paper comparing secular education with traditional Jewish education.

What struck him, he says, was the way Jewish education seemed to produce children who were intellectually excellent, honed through hours of Torah training and Socratic-style questioning, as well as religiously pious and morally grounded.

Traditional Jews also seemed to keep family ties strong, with fewer generation gaps than he says he found in his own community, and low divorce rates.

Persistence Pays Off

Trying to learn more about Jewish religious education, however, wasn’t easy. He called the Orthodox Yeshiva University in Los Angeles but says he was told it was not open to non-Jews. He called again and was told the same thing. The third time, he said he began to argue with the rabbi on the other end:

“Why do you want to hide? God gave the Torah not just for you but also to shine for all nations. If you teach me the secrets of survival, how to keep your children holy, I will teach this to the Koreans. This will be good for you and good for God!” Hyun said he told the rabbi.

There was a pause. Then the rabbi gave him the name and number of Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, a professor of Jewish law at Loyola University and prominent member of the Orthodox community known for reaching out to non-Jews.

Hyun called Adlerstein, who immediately invited him to his home for Shabbat dinner. Even better, Hyun said, Adlerstein agreed to guide his research into Jewish education.

“He allowed me to attend his Talmudic teachings,” Hyun said. “He invited me to all of the ritual meals–the Passover Seder, Sukkot, Rosh Hashana. I asked so many questions and he answered them all.”

The Shabbat meal, in particular, left a lasting impression, Hyun says. He was moved by the way the family sang a ritual song of praise to Adlerstein’s wife–a contrast, he says, with an old Korean saying that the “three dumb things” a man must not do are praise his wife, his children or himself. He was touched by the way Adlerstein blessed each of his children.

And he was impressed at the way Adlerstein taught his children the Torah, quizzing them on passages, never spoon-feeding answers but asking more questions to stimulate their critical thinking skills and creative intellects.

For his part, Adlerstein said he initially thought the idea of a Korean Christian minister wanting to learn about Orthodox Judaism seemed “a little odd.”

Although traditional Jews don’t believe Judaism was meant for the world–they do not proselytize and often discourage would-be converts–Adlerstein was willing to guide Hyun.

“Our attitude generally as a community is that when you’re enthusiastic about God and his teachings, you have a gift that you want to share with any well-intentioned person,” he said.

Armed with his experiences, Hyun was ready to try the techniques on his four sons at home. He announced that, like Adlerstein, he would no longer allow them to watch TV. Instead, three evenings a week he would teach them the Bible.

The reaction? “They rejected it all,” Hyun said, laughing.

After too many nights of arguments, Hyun got them interested in Bible studies by asking them to take turns preaching. But more than the intellectual training, Hyun said, it was his mimicry of Jewish expressions of family love that seemed to bring the most dramatic results.

Praise for His Wife

For the first time, Hyun says, he began praising his wife as he had seen his Jewish mentor do. He took her to Malibu at night, and strolled around the waterfront. He began washing the dishes and taking his wife on his travels. Before, he said, their marriage was characterized by “no romance–just orders” to her from him.

For the first time, he gathered his sons around to bless them. He asked God to bless them with wisdom, prosperity, leadership and the light of the gospel. “I cried, and they cried,” he said.

From then on, he says, his family life dramatically improved. “Judaism showed me patience and how to lead children by wisdom and not authoritarianism. Now our family friendship has recovered.”

Eager to share his experiences with other Koreans, Hyun has written a book on Jewish religious education that has sold more than 120,000 copies.

Hyun writes that Jewish fathers develop a child’s IQ through Talmudic teachings, while mothers nurture their “EQ,” or emotional quotient, with their maternal love–a thesis Adlerstein himself rejects in favor of viewing both parents as responsible for nurturing both aspects.

Experiencing Judaism

Hyun also figures he’s reached 300,000 other Koreans in lectures on Jewish education at various seminars and conferences around the world.

And he says he has brought at least 150 people to Los Angeles to experience traditional Judaism firsthand in visits to synagogues and Friday night Shabbat dinners.

During one recent tour, Hyun led a group into the Beth Jacob congregation on Olympic Boulevard, wearing a traditional Korean jacket and a Jewish yarmulke.

After Sabbath prayers, Rabbi Shimon Kraft fielded a stream of lively questions: Why do you wear a head covering? Why do you wear a beard? Why kiss the door? Why do men shake when they pray? Why do you have two pulpits? Do you evangelize?”

Finally, someone asked: “We’ve learned about Jews, but what do you think about Koreans?”

Kraft gave the crowd a broad smile.

“They are bright, hard-working, studious–just like Jewish people,” he said. “We seem to share a lot of the same values.”

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