by Chaplain (CPT) Shlomo Shulman
South Korea has been in the news a lot lately. It’s hard to believe this ultra-modern, peaceful country with spotless sidewalks and almost no street crime is on the front lines of the last battle of the Cold War.
I’ve been a US Army chaplain in Seoul for the past year-and-a-half. I’m assigned to the military police – MPs – who handle law enforcement duties on all the US military bases in Korea, and I cover a few other units that don’t have a chaplain assigned to them, or at least not anywhere nearby. In addition, I’m the only Jewish chaplain on the peninsula. So it’s been busy.
On Friday nights, I hold Shabbos services at the base chapel. Typically we get about 25 people, depending on what’s for dinner afterward.
When my family is here with me, we’re savoring my Martha Stewart-molded wife’s delicious cuisine. My wife makes all the staples, often from scratch: fresh challah, gefilte fish, matzah ball soup, potato kugel, chocolate brownies and other tasty desserts. Nowadays, she and our kids spend a lot of time in Jerusalem, and I don’t have the patience ( or skills ) to play chef. I’m good with steaming frozen vegetables or emptying cans of soup into a pot, although lately I’ve been getting a little more courageous in the kitchen, mixing my own hummus and occasionally baking chicken – which every now and then comes out okay.
The crowd ranges from soldiers with yeshiva backgrounds – men and women – to soldiers just discovering their Judaism, English teachers, government employees and business executives, Israelis, and even a sizeable group of Korean civilians who’ve been attending Jewish services at the chapel for years.
Judaism is quite popular in Korea. About 30,000 Koreans visit Israel each year as tourists. In fact, Korean Airlines operates three direct flights to Tel Aviv each week, and they’re often full. You can pick up a copy of Jewish Times Asia newsmagazine, and in many bookstores, one can find Talmud stories for children translated into Korean. I’ve seen Korean-Hebrew editions of the Passover Haggadah as well as the Purim Megilla.
The base commissary stocks Empire frozen chicken and turkey, jars of gefilte fish, grape juice and wine, frozen bread rolls and most any kind of kosher food you’d find in a big city supermarket in the US.
The Army operates a hilltop retreat center not far away, where we hold the big-ticket events, like the Passover Seders and High Holiday services. There’s a large chapel, kitchen and dining hall there, and plenty of guest rooms for those spending the night.
I’ve had some terrific Chabad yeshiva guys fly over to lead services, blow the shofar and read from the Torah scroll. They also make the kitchen kosher and supervise the food preparation, although the Korean staff are fairly familiar with the laws of kashrus, having worked there for years.
Holidays like Purim, Simchas Torah and Tisha B’Av are usually joint ventures with the local Chabad House down the road from the base.
But this year for the High Holidays, we merged congregations, so the crowd swelled to nearly 100 people and was about as diverse a gathering of Jews that ever existed; from the rabbi himself, to the Israeli ambassador and some of the staff of the Israeli and US embassies, American civilians working in Korea, senior US Army officers and their families, and infantry soldiers stationed on the DMZ – the demilitarized zone at the border with North Korea, about 30 miles from Seoul.
Now I’m not a wise rabbinic authority by any means – don’t ask me to see if your chicken was slaughtered properly or settle a complex business dispute. But for the Jews in the military in Korea, no joke, sometimes I’m all there is!
One time I even managed to organize a bris, along with the help of an Army pediatrician at the base hospital, who was Jewish and a regular at my Friday night chapel services. Don’t worry, I didn’t actually cut anything. Thank G-d, the father turned out to be an Army doctor as well and took care of that part himself, which – believe it or not – is ideally how the mitzvah is intended.
I spend most of my time during the week working around my battalion. I’m handling soldiers’ personal concerns, from marital problems to issues with their commanders. Soldiers in my unit have asked me to “bless” their newborn babies and perform non-religious (not Jewish) weddings, among other things.
Often I’m asked to deliver a “non-denominational” invocation prayer at change-of-command ceremonies and memorial observances, “spiritual fitness events” and other occasions.
Because the MPs work at bases all over the country, I’m often on the road driving somewhere, or on the bullet train visiting troops outside of Seoul.
Before the Army, I didn’t have much of a background in counseling or attending to the psychological crises of total strangers – what they call the “ministry”. But I’ve become more proficient at it after four years of knocks on the door and phone calls in the middle of the night, sitting with soldiers, listening for hours as they confide in me about their dilemmas, disclosing the most personal of details.
When it comes to marital squabbles, sometimes all it takes is for me to act as an objective third party to tell them what they already know: You’ve forgotten how to appreciate one another. Be grateful for what your spouse does for you. Be thankful everyone is healthy, and that you have a family waiting for you when you get home.
Although you may not realize it right now, you have a lot to be thankful for. Put on a happy face today, and make sure you hug your kid.
But very often, it’s simply the face of concern and the listening ear that lessens most of the anxiety and worry.
I’ll probably never forget the call I got from the base hospital chaplain one afternoon.
It turned out to be by far the worst experience I’ve ever had.
The baby girl was seven weeks old, and that morning it was decided it would be best to turn off the life support equipment. Of course the Torah strictly forbids such things, but there wasn’t anything I could do at that point – I didn’t even know the parents’ names.
The young mother and father were both MPs and wanted the chaplain there when they pulled the plug.
I shared a taxi from the base hospital with the head nurse and the case manager. We drove through rush-hour Seoul traffic late on Friday afternoon to Samsung Hospital, a massive, state-of-the art structure with futuristic giant-screen TV monitors in the lobby, hundreds of patients and visitors flowing down every corridor and stairway.
The case manager had been there before. She led us up to the newborn intensive care ward. We washed our hands with special soap and donned disposable plastic aprons, then walked in.
There were incubators everywhere, rows of them, some pushed up against the walls and hallways; many had premature babies in them the size of kittens. I wondered how they were able to live being so small, but these tiny mini-babies squirmed around in their basinets, hooked up to various tubes – otherwise looking like any other newborn.
We found the couple, both 20-year-old soldiers. The mother had a large tattoo on her calf, a depiction of some stuffed animals, with the words “Good Night, Sweet Princesses – May 26, 2008 – a reference to the twin girls she’d carried to term, stillborn, barely more than a year ago.
She’d ruptured her uterus during her previous pregnancy and didn’t realize it needed to heal completely before she should get pregnant again, but she did anyway just a few weeks later.
When she went into labor, not understanding what a high risk she was, she headed straight to the hospital on our base to deliver. It’s a modern hospital, but not equipped for that kind of delivery. By the time she was transferred to Samsung, the baby had suffered irreversible brain damage.
The hospital ethics committee had convened several times and determined the baby met all the criteria to be declared clinically brain-dead. Still, an EKG test picked up a weak flutter of brain stem activity, which left the infant “legally” very much alive. With virtually zero chance of the baby ever leaving the intensive care ward, the nurse described her to me as a “flower just getting watered each day” – and thus, the couple was prepared to do what every parent finds incapable of even imagining.
The traffic got us there late. It was 4:00 p.m., and in the taxi I was worried we wouldn’t make it back to the base in time for Shabbos. But I think I was just trying to take my mind off what we were about to witness.
A dozen Korean nurses and doctors in scrubs and white coats stood around a bassinet with the baby lying there, sleeping so peacefully. Her little fingers were sticking out of the sleeves of a pink jumper the mother had dressed her in. She wanted a last photograph holding her baby girl. Someone pulled out a digital camera. The mother picked up the baby. The father leaned in closely. They forced a half-smile for a macabre family portrait. Then the baby was laid back into the bassinet.
I felt I should say something to them, but I had no idea what. I stepped forward and put a hand on the father’s shoulder and said, “I’m right here if you need me.”
The nurse looked at the mother. The mother nodded. The nurse pushed a button on the machine connected to the little girl. All the lights went off on the machine. The father – who seemed barely out of high school – stroked his wife’s back tenderly. She held onto the infant’s foot, he held onto her tiny hand.
After a few minutes, the baby’s face turned a pale blue, then paler still. Her little pink fingers went limp. One nurse opened up the jumper and checked her heartbeat with a stethoscope. Some nurses were crying. The mother sobbed.
A few minutes later, one of the doctors checked a monitor, said something in Korean, and a couple of the nurses moved in on the baby. They were so fast, it surprised me. They pulled the respirator tube out of her mouth, forcing her little cheeks forward a bit. They yanked the wires out and turned off the monitors, flipping each switch one after the other.
One of the nurses handed the mother a pink blanket, which she used to wrap around the baby. She cradled the bundle in her arms. A doctor told us everyone had to move out of the ward and into a side room. There were other procedures going on that day, and we had to make room for them.
We all trailed along in silence, a ghoulish parade following a young couple holding a blanket with a dead baby inside.
The couple went into an examination room the nurses had made available, while a group of us waited outside in the hallway making small talk. After a few minutes, a nurse came out and said to me, “They’d like you to say a prayer for their baby before the mortuary team arrives.”
Despite the obvious theological differences I had with the decision that had been made, I’d managed to scratch down a few thoughts on an index card. I took a deep breath and stepped inside the room. After some awkward condolences and apologies, I stood in front of the couple, still holding the stiff, pale baby wrapped in the pink blanket, and read from the card:
Almighty God, this precious baby graced this world for just a few short weeks.
Master of the Universe, in Your infinite wisdom, You gave her to her mother and father with a tender little body that was broken inside. For this reason only, they return her holy soul to You today, as innocent and pure as it was when she entered the world. One day we will all meet again in the Garden of Heaven, where we will bask in the light of clarity and understanding and forget all the sadness we feel at this moment.
It is with heavy hearts that we act today. God Almighty, we beg You to forgive us for our arrogance, and look upon us with mercy. Amen.
We sat in silence in the taxi on the ride back to the base. What is there to say after you’ve just witnessed the Angel of Death pass through the room you’re in?
I tried to let my mind shift back to Shabbos, which by then was getting very close. What’s the theme of this week’s Torah reading? Will there be enough challah for everyone if we get a big crowd tonight?
But something still bothered me. I was trying to figure out what lesson the Almighty wanted us to learn from what just happened. That life is fragile? That things don’t always work out the way you plan? It seemed a harsh way to teach that point.
Or could it be much more simple, something we already know?
Put on a happy face today, and make sure you hug your kid.
Shlomo Shulman grew up in Los Angeles. He and his family have been stationed in Korea since June 2009. Prior to his present assignment, he served in Iraq for 15 months, followed by almost a year in Savannah, Georgia. He can be reached at