An immigrant from Kaifeng praying at the Western Wall
“The Jewish descendants of Kaifeng are reaching out to us, looking to return to our people”
The age of the Internet and YouTube so often bring items of interest to our attention, many of which leave us wanting to know more. And so it was for me, after watching a video about the arrival of seven young Jewish men from Kaifeng, China, returning to the homeland of their ancestors, Israel. They were warmly welcomed at Ben-Gurion Airport by four women from Kaifeng, who had come to Israel in 2006 with the aim of living as Jews in the land of their forefathers.
My desire to know more about the Jews of Kaifeng brought me in contact with the Shavei Israel organization and its founder and director, Michael Freund.
Michael made aliyah to Israel in 1995 and served as Deputy Director of Communications and Policy Planning in the Prime Minister’s Office under then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. A heartfelt letter reached his desk from one of the Bnei Menashe in India, who claims descent from a lost tribe of Israel, and this brought him into contact with members of their community. He felt their sincerity and desire to be part of Israel, and this plunged him into research which instilled in him a determination to assist not only the Bnei Menashe but also many other remaining genetic offshoots of the Jewish people in far-flung places of the world to which the outcome of our turbulent history had brought them.
Michael devoted himself to a new path in life, and took to the road in 1999 to make contact with, and learn more about, these remnants and to see if he could help them rediscover their roots and find their way back to Eretz Israel. Thus Shavei Israel came into being, and its broad agenda eventually brought Michael to Kaifeng.
Over a thousand years ago, Jewish traders traveling the Silk Road settled in the city of Pien Liang (now Kaifeng) with the blessing of the emperor. In 1163 C.E., the growth of their trade had brought enough Jews to the region for a synagogue to be built. Over the next eight centuries the community thrived, and by the 17th century it reached its height. But then began a decline brought about by intermarriage, war, and poverty. In the 19th century, the last rabbi died, repetitive floods struck the city, and the synagogue was slowly devastated and finally destroyed.
Today, some 1,000 people are identifiable as descendants of the Jewish community, and they still guard and nourish the traditions they have inherited through the ages, refraining from eating pork or mixing milk and meat, and simply passing tales of their ancient inheritance from generation to generation and the whys and wherefores of their beliefs. The Jewish names were changed over the years, as during the Ming dynasty the emperor found the Hebrew spelling confusing and changed surnames to Chinese ones such as Jin, Shi, Li and Gao.
With the emergence of China as an economic power and the decline of communism, the country has developed and modernized, leading to an increase in tourism. Historical sites have been uncovered and developed, including the remains of the synagogue, and artefacts from those early days have been recovered. There has been an awakening among the young, brought about both by political and social changes and the access to information through the Internet.
In 2005, Michael reached Kaifeng and a Shabbat Eve get-together brought more than 80 participants. While talking with them, he heard about their reverence for their ancestry and their sense of duty to reclaim and renew that heritage. Four young women expressed their desire to come to Israel and fulfil that duty, and in January the next year, Shavei Israel brought them to Jerusalem to learn about the religion of their forefathers and be accepted fully as practicing Jews. One year later, they were acknowledged as being fully converted by the Beth Din. Michael talks of their complete devotion to Judaism. He tells how one woman called Jin, when asked which Jewish name she wanted to adopt, replied, “Yecholya.” Silence followed as no one had heard of this name before. The woman was asked where she had heard the name, and replied, "In the Bible."
"Where in the Bible?"
"It is the name of the mother of one of the kings of Israel."
She then took a copy of the Bible and showed the verse. Asked why she wanted that name, she told them: "My father told me that we are descendants of the people of Israel and that we would return because it was God’s wish, and now I have, so ‘God can’ — Yechol — that is the name I want."
After the ceremony, the group went out with Michael for kosher sushi and launched into a heated discussion in Chinese as to the order in which the blessings were to be said.
Two of the women act as tour guides in Jerusalem to the many Chinese tourists who now come to the Holy Land.
Further permission was granted to Shavei Israel to bring another group, of seven young men, in October 2009. One of them, now called Yaacov Wang, hopes to continue his studies to become a rabbi – the first Chinese rabbi in 200 years – and then return to Kaifeng to bring other descendants closer to their roots. The others are also completing their Jewish and conversion studies and are living close to Jerusalem. As Michael says, "The Jewish descendants of Kaifeng are reaching out to us, looking to return to our people. We must not turn our backs on them. We are one nation with many faces and we owe it to them — and to ourselves — to help them to make the long journey home."
For more information: www.shavei.org.
Kaifeng women at the Western Wall, 2006