And they shall know that I am the LORD their God, in that I caused them to go into captivity among the nations, and have gathered them unto their own land; and I will leave none of them any more there (Ezekiel 39:28)
It’s called “Study of Torah Street” in Chinese and for hundreds of years was the center of Jewish life in the ancient Chinese capital of Kaifeng. But since the 1850s, when the synagogue was shuttered and the last rabbi passed away, the “Study of Torah Street” has been more of a reminder of illustrious days gone by than a living, breathing contemporary reality.
Now, thanks to Israel Returns,“Study of Torah Street” has the potential to return, if only in a modest way, to some of its former glory. Last month, Israel Returns opened a new center for the Jews of Kaifeng in a small but nicely furnished 2-story apartment with a pretty garden featuring a yellow pomegranate tree, just adjacent to the street with the famous Jewish name. The new center includes a large room for prayers and classes, a guest room for visitors to stay over when they travel to the community, a kitchen and dining room, and a separate room for online distance learning given over the computer via Skype.
The center is dedicated in memory of Mr. Harry Rosenthal, who was Israel Return’s Chairman Michael Freund’s step-grandfather. Rosenthal was an American Zionist leader and businessman who traveled frequently to China and piqued Freund’s interest in the country at a young age.
The new Center in Kaifeng is notable for another reason: it rectifies a schism that has plagued the community for the past several years when two Jewish schools for the tiny 150-person strong Jewish community were operating and competing for members. Now there is just one school and everyone is on board.
Eran Barzilay is Israel Return’s coordinator for the Kaifeng Jewish community. An Israeli who speaks Chinese and spent a year in Kaifeng as part of his studies in East Asian Studies at Hebrew University in 2010 , he describes some of the activities that have taken place in the new center since its establishment.
The community meets every Friday night for Shabbat evening prayers followed by a group meal. On Sundays, there are Skype lessons, currently on Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) with Ari Schaffer, who visited Kaifeng on Israel Return’s behalf last year and is teaching the class from the U.S.
The center was at its most energetic during the period of Sukkot; that’s because the Chinese and Jewish calendars overlap and the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival comes out at the same time as Sukkot. “Because everyone is on vacation, they can come home to Kaifeng, to celebrate and sit in thesukka together,” Barzilay explains.
Barzilay was in Kaifeng for Sukkot this year and brought with him his Israeli havruta (study partner) from the yeshiva which the two attend. Barzilay’s havruta was peppered with questions on Jewish Law by the Kaifeng community (Barzilay was fortunately there to translate). His havruta, Barzilay relates, was “amazed” by the very fact that a Jewish community still exists in China.
Exist it does, although it once was much larger, numbering as many as 5,000 people at its height during the Middle Ages. Jews arrived in Kaifeng originally as merchants from Persia or Iraq plying their trade along the fabled Silk Route. We have more about the community and its history on our website.
Barzliay in his role for Israel Returns splits his attention between the needs of the community in Kaifeng and the Chinese Jews who have already come to Israel. This includes the 7 young Jewish men whom we have written about in the past and who recently completed the conversion process in Israel. Now, these 7 men will return to China for their first vacation since beginning their formal journey back to Judaism with Israel Return’s help more than three years ago.
Getting into China will not be as easy as it sounds, though: China does not allow dual citizenship, so each of the 7 men had to apply for a standard tourist visa. As far as China is concerned, they are now 100% Israeli. Most are planning to visit for up to a month; one of the men hopes to stay for up to half a year to learn to become a chef in order to realize his dream of opening an authentic Chinese restaurant in Israel. Most of the men will serve some time in the Israeli army upon their return. “They’re looking forward to it,” Barzilay says. “They see it as a way to become more Israeli and, of course, to improve their Hebrew.”
The Kaifeng Jewish community is not a particularly wealthy one today. “Kaifeng in general is a poor city,” Barzliay explains. Most of the Jews here run small shops and textile workshops. A few work in the government and one has a job with a bank.
Nor is it easy to practice Judaism publicly. The local university in Kaifeng actually offers a major in Judaism but, explains, Barzilay, “The Jewish Studies students at the university are not allowed to meet the Kaifeng Jews. In fact, it is illegal for them to even say they’re Jewish. There are 56 official minorities in China, but ‘Jewish’ is not one of them.”
Barzilay says that his experience with the community in Kaifeng has made him more religiously observant. He tells the story of a Kaifeng community member he met who started keeping kosher. “This man would go to meetings and they’d serve all kinds of meat, including pork and even dogs. They eat a lot of dogs in Kaifeng. He would turn it all down and say ‘I can’t. I’m a Jew.’ When I heard how hard he worked to keep kosher in China, I felt I wanted to be that way too.”
It seems that “Study of Torah Street” is indeed living up to its name again.