Passover tradition draws crowd of Jews, non-Jews
SEOUL — Like many other Jewish people serving in the military, Spc. Marie Gilliam’s faith places her on a short list among her peers.
“I think in my battalion, I’m it,” said Gilliam, of the 41st Battalion’s 201st Signal Company. “Most of my co-workers don’t even know what Passover is.”
Gilliam, with other Jews and several non-Jews interested in the faith, celebrated Passover at traditional Seders on Wednesday and Thursday evenings at the 8th Army Religious Retreat Center in Seoul.
More than 100 people attended Wednesday’s Seder.
The crowd surprised Air Force Capt. Jonathan Newman, who recently arrived in South Korea but previously attended Jewish services while deployed in Baghdad.
“It means a lot to see this number of people and the diversity. I’m not sure they’re all Jewish but they’re here,” said Newman, of the 303rd Intelligence Squadron at Osan Air Base.
Newman said as he walked from the prayer chapel to the dining hall, he overheard a mix of English, French, Hebrew and Korean being spoken.
At least a dozen Koreans wore kipot on their heads and some recited Hebrew prayers. During the Seder, Army Rabbi Capt. Avrohom Horovitz lauded one South Korean man for his devotion to studying the Old Testament, more often known to Jews as the Torah.
Passover commemorates the ancient Hebrews’ exodus from Egypt after 400 years of slavery. The Seders during the first two nights include dinner, prayers and singing. The Seder plate displays food symbolizing Jewish suffering during their slavery, as well as reminders of both the ritual and the ultimate destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.
It’s also a time when some Jewish families meet with relatives they don’t see often. Given the transient nature of servicemembers and others working abroad, some in attendance looked to the Seder to provide the feeling of an extended family community.
“It’s great to be with other people to celebrate. That’s what it’s all about,” said Lisa Vershbow, who attended Wednesday night with her husband, U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow.
After six months in the country, the Vershbows were curious to see how much of a Jewish community existed in Seoul.
Hanyang Elementary School teacher Eric Morrison was wondering the same thing after four years in South Korea. Last year, he printed out prayers from the Internet.
Morrison credited Horovitz for outreach efforts in local media that brought him and so many others to the Seder.
“To be able to observe what to me is the most important holiday, besides Yom Kippur, is great,” Morrison said. “We have a lot to be thankful for.”