Heerak Kim is a native of Korea, a product of America, and a scholar of Israel. At a time when even some Jewish-Americans are wary of visiting their religious homeland because of Israeli-Palestinian tensions, Kim, C’90, has embraced Jerusalem as the site for his doctoral studies. Now in his third year conducting research at Hebrew University he says he feels right at home.
His dissertation focuses on what he terms “the beginning of modern Judaism”: the changing nature of the religion after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem’s Second Temple in 70 A.D. while conquering the city. This destruction of Judaism’s central institution set in motion the shift from a centralized, sacrifice-oriented religion to a faith that would rely on the synagogue and scholarship to survive in dispersion.
In many ways, the country has become Kim’s classroom. He has visited architectural sights such as Qumran, near the Dead Sea, where it is believed that a Jewish sect wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls during the Late Second Temple period. “I think some things can’t be learned from books, and experience heightens one’s enthusiasm for the material,” he says.
His inspiration came from a Jewish history class at Penn his sophomore year, taught by a visiting professor, Dr. David Engel, from Tel Aviv University. “I saw that history could be something that was very personal,” says Kim, a native of Pusan, South Korea, who immigrated to the United States when he was nine. The course “asked questions about basic human nature… and the ability of humans to get together as a group and exert their identity to the extent that they can overcome difficult traumas and trials.” Upon graduating from Penn in 1990 (his sister, Onyoo, C/G’94, would soon follow), Kim went to the University of California at Los Angeles to begin work on his history Ph.D. Then, after completing his master’s degree requirements and teaching for the next three years, he enrolled at Hebrew University’s Rothberg School for Overseas Students.
“I was happy to see a lot of offerings here,” he says, noting the disjointed and peripheral way in which Jewish history is often taught at American universities. Hebrew University uses a much different approach. “It sees Jewish history as a continuous process from ancient times to modern times,” Kim explains. He returned to UCLA in 1994, where he took a course on the Hebrew language of the Dead Sea Scrolls and worked as a staff research associate in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures. But a year later he came back to Hebrew University to continue his studies.
As a Korean-American who was raised a Christian, Kim is a minority in Jerusalem, but has received a warm reception, with many people inviting him into their homes for Sabbath dinners. He has even appeared in a promotional video for the Rothberg School, speaking of his love for Jerusalem. In fact, Kim says he feels a little guilty for recently neglecting some of his friendships due to his intense studies. “I have a lot of friends, and right now I feel bad because I’ve been doing so much work, I have not been able to utilize the contacts I’ve made.” Kim traveled back to Korea in 1987, but says,”I consider myself American more or less, with Korean descent. My affection for Korea is mostly for my relatives. I see America as my country, and my intellectual interests are more in the field of Jewish history.”
This summer he plans to continue his doctoral work back in the United States at Brown University. But Kim hopes his absence from Israel won’t be a long one. “My ultimate dream, and it is a dream, kind of, is to come back here and teach in the department of Jewish history.”
—By Susan Lonkevich