Ben-Gurion Airport was the setting for an unusual scene late Tuesday night, as seven young Chinese men wearing kippot arrived via Uzbekistan to make aliya.
The newcomers, who were brought here by the Shavei Israel organization, are all descendants of the Jewish community of Kaifeng, China, which flourished on the southern banks of the Yellow River for more than 1,000 years.
It marked the first time that an organized group has moved here from Kaifeng.
"I am very excited to be here in the Holy Land," said Yaakov Wang, one of the new immigrants. "This is something that my ancestors dreamed about for generations, and now, thank God, I have finally made it."
Wang said he eventually hoped to become a rabbi, so that one day he could help other Kaifeng Jewish descendants to learn more about their heritage.
Wang and the other young men will spend their first few months in the country learning Hebrew at an ulpan on a religious kibbutz in the North, after which they will prepare to undergo conversion.
From the airport, the group went straight to the Western Wall, where they recited the "Shehehiyanu
" blessing with great emotion, and then burst into a chorus of traditional Hebrew songs.
"It took more than two years to get the necessary permission from the Interior Ministry to bring them over, but it was well worth the wait," said Shavei Israel chairman Michael Freund, who is also a Jerusalem Post
columnist. Freund said he hoped this group's arrival and absorption would serve as a pilot, and if successful, would open the door to bringing more potential olim.
"This is an historic event," he said, adding that "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 roots."
At its peak, during the Middle Ages, Kaifeng Jewry numbered about 5,000. 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.
According to Freund, there are still hundreds of people in Kaifeng who cling to their identity as descendants of the city's Jewish community. In recent years, a growing number have begun to express an interest in studying Jewish history and culture. The building where the synagogue stood is now a hospital. In the basement, there are still signs of a mikve.
Of the approximately 1,000 descendants of the Jewish community, about half, if given the opportunity, would make the move to Israel, Freund said.