- Meir Alfasi is a rabbi, photographer, and former photojournalist who lives in Israel and has travelled to 80 countries.
- He spent five days in North Korea, where non-state-sanctioned religion is strictly forbidden.
- He had some close calls with North Korean officials and told INSIDER he’d “never felt so scared in my life.”
A rabbi, photographer, and former photojournalist from Israel, Alfasi has been to 80 countries. He’s spent a year living in India doing Jewish outreach and even printed copies of religious books at Everest Base Camp and in Antarctica.
“I travel with the uniform of a religious person, a Jewish person, because maybe someone will see me and ask a question, then I could tell them more about Judaism,” he told INSIDER.
In North Korea, he had to hide his religious identity.
While North Korea’s constitution says it allows for freedom of religious beliefs, a 2017 report from the US State Department found that any religious activities that are not state-sanctioned, including reading the Bible or praying, result in “executions, torture, beatings, and arrests” or other forms of “severe punishment, including imprisonment in political prison camps.”
The report also estimated that between 80,000 and 120,000 political prisoners were being held in prison camps, some for religious reasons.
Alfasi spent five days touring North Korea, calling himself the first Chabad rabbi to visit the country. He couldn’t speak openly about Judaism and hid his religious books and ritual objects from authorities. But he did wear his black hat and bekishe.
Here’s what his trip to North Korea was like.
Meir Alfasi wanted to be the first Chabad rabbi to visit North Korea.
“I heard on the news that Trump and Kim [Jong-un] were talking together and I decided that maybe this is a good time for Chabad to come,” he told INSIDER. “I thought, I’ll check it out. I’ll be the first Chabad rabbi ever to go to North Korea.”
He applied for a visa directly through the North Korean government after getting rejected by tourism companies.
At first, his request was rejected because the companies saw that he had worked as a photojournalist, and journalists aren’t allowed into North Korea. He then reapplied and listed his occupation as a wedding photographer and was approved.
On the plane from China to North Korea, flight attendants wore pins with photos of the North Korean leaders.
When he got up to stretch his legs, Alfasi says he was sternly told to sit back down.
When he landed at the border, North Korean soldiers went through his suitcases.
“You have to write down every detail before, then they take your list and see what you have. They say, ‘How many socks do you have?'” he said.
Alfasi brought a prayer book, a prayer shawl, and tefillin (small leather boxes containing scrolls of religious writings that are worn during prayer) — all of which are forbidden in North Korea.
When the soldiers found his tefillin, he narrowly avoided having them discovered as a religious item.
“Before you come in they tell you you’re not allowed to bring any religious things,” he said. “They said ‘OK, what is tefillin?’ I said ‘I put this on my arms.’ I didn’t tell them it was religious because I didn’t know what was going to happen.”
One of the soldiers wanted to open the tefillin, but an English-speaking guide intervened just in time.
“I was scared because if they open it they will see the religious parchment and it would be very dangerous,” he said. “I told the guy, ‘Don’t open it. If you open it, I’m staying here in the airport.’ The soldier called the guides who speak English, and the guide said, ‘Let it go, it’s ok.’ That was my beginning in North Korea.”
Alfasi says it soon became clear that his every move was being watched.
“I prayed inside my room every day, but I got so scared because once I wrote something down in my room and in the morning one of the guys said, ‘What did you write down in your room?'” he said. “I realised that this is not a regular country, I have to be more aware. Every little thing you do or say.”
He also felt their careful watch on him in the car ride to the border with South Korea.
“When you’re in the car, you have three guides, two in the back and the driver. They’re always looking at you and asking questions,” he said. “They work for the government.”
Alfasi had an unnerving experience when visiting the statues of North Korea’s leaders.
“I put my hands behind my back, and I felt the guide kick me on the back very hard,” he said. “I was shocked. He was screaming at me, saying, ‘You’re not allowed to put your hands on your back in front of our leaders.’ From that time I realised I’m in North Korea.”
“My guide took a picture of me there. If you look at my face, I’m terrified,” he said.
“It’s not the same person that I know, it’s not me. You can see in my eyes, I never felt so scared in my life,” he said.
He was also shocked to discover that books were heavily guarded.
“In North Korea, books are kept in safes,” he said. “For North Korea, a book is one of the most dangerous things. It’s like a gun.”
As Alfasi was leaving, he invited his guide to visit Israel.
“He said, ‘We’re too busy to go.’ But I saw in his face, in his eyes, they’re very stuck in North Korea,” he said.
Alfasi also gave him a small card with the Seven Laws of Noah, including Biblical prohibitions against murder and stealing, that the Talmud says apply to all of humanity.
“I gave it to him and said ‘This is my business card,'” he said.
Alfasi doesn’t recommend that others go see North Korea for themselves.
“It’s not worth it, but I did it,” he said of visiting North Korea. “I had a lot of experiences and I saw different things. It’s not so worth it because it’s dangerous.”
He said the trip did make him appreciate the freedom that he has.
“They don’t have any freedom,” he said. “We have to be happy with what we have. We have family, we have freedom. We can do whatever we want.”
True to his Hasidic outlook of looking for the positive aspects of every person, he said that others can learn from North Korea’s way of life.
“We can learn from them,” he said. “They don’t have internet or anything, so they have more time to think.”
- Read more:
- I’m an American who lived in North Korea and I can tell you that one of the ‘world’s most dangerous borders’ is more of a tourist site than anything
- 19 pictures that show how images of the Supreme Leaders are plastered absolutely everywhere in North Korea
- I’m an American who lived in North Korea for a month – and the biggest challenge I faced during my time there was psychological
- 21 photos of North Korea that Kim Jong Un wouldn’t want you to see
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