Army pushups meet rap music at seder in South Korea

SEOUL, South Korea — The seder is only 10 minutes old — and there's already been a mistake.

Rabbi Ira Ehrenpreis forgot to inform his 150 congregants to wash their hands in the three plastic tubs at the entrance.

The 43-year-old Ehrenpreis, who doubles as a U.S. Army captain, hits the floor in his kittel, a traditional white robe, and pays for his error in the form of 10 pushups.

For the second consecutive year here, Ehrenpreis is conducting one of the most remote and eccentric Passover celebrations worldwide. It is believed to be the only rabbi-led seder on the Korean peninsula, a region about the size of Virginia and home to 70 million inhabitants.

The 150 congregants include American soldiers, Israeli diplomats, businessmen, English-language teachers and of course, Koreans. Together they fill the entire dining hall at U.S. Army's Religious Retreat Center — a former Buddhist temple.

Ehrenpreis, the lone rabbi in Korea, is one of the 37,000 American troops stationed in Seoul, only 40 miles, or "within artillery range," from North Korea.

His quirky sense of humor is easily detectable when he introduces himself as a "Southern Orthodox" rabbi because of his stints in both South Korea and America's South.

He spent the past two weeks exempt from his daily Army duties so he could prepare for Passover — "when all the Jews come out of the woods." His main task was to inform the 150 Jewish soldiers dispersed across the Peninsula about an event that isn't recognized by the official Army calendar.

The two seders cost a hefty $5,000, due to the burden of shipping kosher foods to Asia. Ehrenpreis received 16 seders-in-a-box, a package of grape juice, matzah, complete seder plates and haggadot courtesy of the Aleph Institute, a Florida-based nonprofit that sent 6,000 packages to American troops worldwide.

Thanks to hounding from his wife, Miriam, Empire turkeys and other kosher ingredients came from the Army's commissary, which mistakenly omitted the kosher wine. Ehrenpreis quickly shuttled around this sprawling, modern capital city until he located a liquor store selling one brand of kosher white wine. He shocked the storekeeper by purchasing 60 bottles.

Ehrenpreis made the Army kitchen kosher with the help of Miriam and Moishe Greeneberg, an observant Jew among the U.S. troops in Korea. The three of them took turns as mashgiach, supervising the Korean kitchen staff as they cooked matzah ball soup, gefilte fish and Manischewitz baked desserts.

The Korean chief chef, Mr. Choe, boasts this is his 46th Passover. But even Choe, a Passover veteran, needs supervision. Most of the previous 10 Army rabbis in Seoul weren't Orthodox and therefore didn't require a kosher kitchen.

But there is one Korean who needs no guidance. Cha Joo Tae, or Avraham as he prefers, says he's the only Korean to convert to Judaism. The 54-year-old, who wears a long thin goatee, started studying Talmud in 1988 and officially converted in 1993 after circumcision. He even divorced his Korean wife so he could lead a pure Jewish lifestyle. His son was recently a bar mitzvah.

When asked to explain his inspiration to take up Judaism from Christianity, Tae barks, "Read the Talmud and you will understand." He has collected 180 Korean-language books on Judaism and proudly explains that Korean schools teach from a book on Jewish culture and traditions because this nation carries a deep respect for Jewish values like education and family.

Throughout the seder, the rabbi is vying for the attention of a mostly secular crowd. In military form, he deployed a group of 10 team leaders to explain the symbolisms of Passover at their respective tables.

But with constant chatter and a Korean wait staff that is hardly familiar with the order of Passover, the scene is wildly chaotic — and joyous.

After the meal, the group begins singing an impassioned rap version of "Who Knows One."

Greeneberg, 22, who hails from a modern Orthodox community in Bangor, Maine, is leading the tune and waving his fist into the air. For Passover, he was granted 10 days of free leave from his work as a flight medic at the demilitarized zone that borders North Korea. He is also exempt from military exercises during Shabbat.

"It is very difficult, and you probably won't find many other Jews in the Army like me," he says. "But by pushing aggressively with my religious needs and forcing them to give me the things I need, I was able to hone in and make sure my needs were met."

He says the Army is "a challenge that opened my eyes to the secular world." After four years of service, he's virtually immune to swear words and the "not so nice" clothes of female soldiers.

Ehrenpreis can sympathize with Greeneberg's outcast status. "It's very hard to be a Jewish soldier because the Army is a let's-blend-together organization. You don't want to stick out."

Raised in a New York suburb, Ehrenpreis studied at a yeshiva in Queens. He was teaching special education at a Jewish school in Brooklyn when he saw an advertisement that offered a chance to "see the world." After stints in North Carolina and Washington, he was sent to Seoul in 2001 as the chaplain of the 41st Signal Battalion, the largest single battalion in the U.S. Army, which is responsible for maintaining communication across one-third of Korea.

He is the only Jewish spiritual leader among the Army's 200 chaplains in Korea. After Passover, he will return to his daily duties of religious counseling, stress management support and personality testing. This summer he will leave for another post with his wife and five children, a location they hope will enable them to have their "first hot pastrami sandwich since 2001."

He conducts weekly Shabbat services at the U.S. base in Seoul, where a crowd of no more than 10 usually consists of more Koreans than U.S. soldiers.

"If I was a young guy on Friday night, am I going to shlep out at 7 p.m. to hang out with the rabbi and his family, or go enjoy myself with buddies around town? Personally, I would hang out in town,'' he says, grinning.