China’s ‘lost Jews’ to hold first Seder in Kaifeng

There are around 1000 residents of Jewish descent in the city, one of China’s former imperial capitals.

Jews in Kaifeng  521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Jews in Kaifeng 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The community of Kaifeng is to be holding one of the first Seder meals to be held by indigenous Chinese Jews in generations next week.
There are around 1,000 residents of Jewish descent in the city, one of China’s former imperial capitals. The Seder, which is being organized by Jerusalem-based Shavei Israel, is to be run by 28-year-old Tzuri (Heng) Shi, a former Kaifeng resident who immigrated to Israel and officially converted several years ago.
The Seder is part of a larger undertaking being run by the Shavei Israel organization aimed at helping people of Jewish descent to “rediscover or renew their link with the people of Israel.”
Shavei Israel is not the only organization working with the Kaifeng Jews, however. Last year Rabbi Andrew Sacks, Director of the Masorati Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly in Israel, held a seder in Kaifeng
Shavei Israel has been active in pushing for the aliya of the Bnei Menashe tribe in India and the Subbotnik Jews of Siberia. It runs seminars and conversion classes for the descendants of Conversos in Spain and Portugal and works to educate “hidden Jews” in Poland and other former Eastern bloc countries and as far as the Amazon Basin.
According to the organization, the Kaifeng Jews are the descendants of Sephardi traders who settled in China during the 8th or 9th century and founded a community that, at its peak, boasted up to 5,000 members. The community, thinned by intermarriage and assimilation, collapsed during the 19th century.
“Many of the families sought to preserve their Jewish identity and pass it down to their descendants, who continued to observe various Jewish customs,” according to Shavei Israel.
“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,” Shavei Israel founder 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 sent Shi, who converted by way of his organization, to Kaifeng with all of the supplies necessary to conduct a Seder, including Haggadot in both Hebrew and Chinese.
Writing in The Jerusalem Post earlier this year, Freund said that out of the several Kaifeng Jews who have already converted, at least one has expressed interest in becoming “the first Chinese rabbi in 200 years – so that he can help other Kaifeng Jewish descendants to draw closer to Judaism.”
“In recent years, an awakening of sorts has taken place, especially among the younger generation of Kaifeng Jewish descendants, many of whom wish to learn more about their heritage and reclaim their roots,” Freund wrote.
Of the Kaifeng community, 10 members have made aliya since 2006, according to Freund, who said that “with God’s help, we plan to bring more in the coming years.”