Of the ancient Jewish community of Kaifeng, China, very few remain, and those that do have dispersed or integrated with the local population via assimilation over the last 400 years. But thanks to the work of Shavei Israel and it’s affiliated organization Israel Returns, new expressions of Jewish identity and community are voicing themselves in the ancient community.
This Passover nearly 100 people of the almost 1,000 members community are expected to attend a first-of-its-kind traditional Passover Seder in China. The seder, set to take place on the first night of Passover (Monday, April 14) is being sponsored by Shavei IsraelIsrael Returns organization.
The seder will be conducted for the first time by 28-year-old Tzuri (Heng) Shi, who immigrated to Israel from Kaifeng a few years ago. Tzuri’s ascension to Israel was also made possible with the help of Israel Returns whereupon he completed his formal return to Judaism.
As part of the preparation for the upcoming Seder, Tzuri was sent to Kaifeng with all of the traditional Passover items including: kosher matzah, wine, other food items necessary for the holidays, and Haggadah’s (traditional book used on Passover that contains the text and order of Seder ceremony) which were prepared especially in Hebrew and Chinese.
According to a press release from the organization, Chairman and Founder of Israel Returns Michael Freund said: “We are proud and excited to organize this historic event. Kaifeng’s Jewish descendants are a living link between China and the Jewish people, and it is very moving to see the remnants of this community returning to their Jewish roots as they prepare for Passover.
Freund was selected as this year’s recipient of the prestigious “Lion of Zion, Prize for Zionism” award from the Moskowitz foundation for his work and accomplishments in reconnecting lost Jews around the world to Israel and helping them return to their ancestral homeland.
Scholars believe the first Jews settled in Kaifeng, which was one of China’s imperial capitals, during the 8th or 9th Century. They are said to have been Sephardic Jewish merchants from Persia or Iraq who made their way eastward along the Silk Route and established themselves in the city with the blessing of the Chinese emperor.
In 1163, Kaifeng’s Jews built a large and beautiful synagogue, which was subsequently renovated and rebuilt on numerous occasions throughout the centuries. At its peak, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the Kaifeng Jewish community may have numbered as many as 5,000 people. But widespread intermarriage and assimilation, as well as the death of the community’s last rabbi, brought about its demise by the middle of the 19th century.
Nevertheless, many of the families sought to preserve their Jewish identity and pass it down to their descendants, who continued to observe various Jewish customs. Currently, there are estimated to be approximately 1,000 Jewish descendants in Kaifeng.
“In recent years, many members of the community have begun to explore their heritage – thanks in part to the Internet, which opened up new worlds for them and provided access to information about Judaism and Israel that was previously inaccessible to them,” Freund noted.