Arrivals: Jin Jin

'I'm a tree that grew up in China, but whose roots are in Israel.'

Jin Jin 88 224 (photo credit: David Stromberg )
Jin Jin 88 224
(photo credit: David Stromberg )
Jin Jin was 13 when her father took her to meet a large group of Jewish tourists who had come to Kaifeng, China, looking for Jews. Her father had told her from an early age that she was a Jew, though he couldn't explain what that meant beyond the family's prohibition against eating pork. And though she had been born and raised in this city on the banks of the Yellow River, once she saw this group of foreigners singing and dancing together, she says something happened inside and she felt connected to a world outside China. BEFORE ARRIVAL As China began to open up, more tourists came to Kaifeng, and with them Jewish groups looking for remnants of Kaifeng's Jews, a community believed to be established in the 12th century. Jin's father would gather local Jews and bring them to meet the foreign Jews. "They would ask, 'Do you light candles on Shabbat?'" recalls Jin, "but we couldn't answer, because we didn't know what Shabbat was." Around 2002, an observant American Jewish man, whom Jin can't identify because of the sensitivity of his work, began to travel to Kaifeng with the goal of resurrecting the Kaifeng Jewish community and eventually bringing it to Israel. Jin's father, who knew many of the Jewish households in the city, took the American from one family to the next to introduce him and his goals. The American started teaching Judaism, Jewish history and Hebrew to those interested in their Jewish roots. A new community of 10 to 20 activists formed around these studies, gathering every Shabbat in an apartment that served as a secret minyan which they called a school. Jin's father and sister now live there and look after the premises. UPON ARRIVAL Jin was one of four young women who were ready to commit themselves to a life in Israel and a process of conversion. They had studied together for two years in Kaifeng, and all received permission from the Chinese government to travel to Israel. It was Jin's first time away from home, and she cried throughout the whole plane ride. She stopped crying only when they were met at the airport by Michael Freund of Shavei Israel, an organization that seeks out so-called lost Jews and helps them return to Israel. Freund took the four straight to the Western Wall, where she started crying again. From the Wall, Freund took them to Bat Ayin in Gush Etzion, where for the next year they would live and study in the Midreshet Be'erot learning program for women. "In China," Jin says, "I never felt a need to prove that I was Jewish. I was a Jew even if I didn't know what it meant. In Israel, I felt the need to study - not to prove anything, but to be Jewish." During her interview with the rabbinate, Jin was asked whether she had picked a Jewish name for herself. She answered that she had, and her choice was Yeholia, which she had picked from a list of Jewish names. "One of the rabbis asked me, 'Do you want to be part of the Jewish people?' I told him, 'Yes.' He said, 'Then pick a name that other Jewish people have.' But I didn't want a different name." Following their successful conversion, all four girls went to live and work on the religious kibbutz Sde Eliahu in the northern Beit She'an Valley. Jin worked in the vineyards in the early morning, and then studied at ulpan. After five months, they were supposed leave the kibbutz and start their aliya process, but because of a miscommunication, they missed their appointment at the Interior Ministry. Shavei Israel rescheduled their appointment, but only for for three months later. They had nowhere to go, so they went back to Sde Eliahu for another ulpan session. FAMILY HISTORY Jin says that in her family, each generation told the next that they were descended from Jews. They've traced their family back 10 generations, but beyond this vague identification of "Jew," they weren't able to say what it meant. Until the early 1980s, the family's Jewish ethnicity was marked on their internal passports. The only Jewish tradition her family has retained is the rejection of eating pork, the most commonly eaten meat in China. WORK While she's on vacation from her Hebrew University preparatory classes, Jin works as a cleaner in the mornings, and at the Aroma cafe on Mount Scopus two evenings per week. Because of the difference between the tests Jin is used to and the exams she had at the university, she didn't do as well as she needed to continue at Hebrew University. But she's intent on being accepted there, and will study and work throughout the next year to do better on the exams. LIVING ENVIRONMENT Jin and one of the other girls, Shuvi (Nina Wang), live together in a dormitory room at the university. "It's too small," says Jin. "There are two beds, one long desk, one closet." Since they won't be continuing at Hebrew University, she and Shuvi have to move out before the beginning of the next academic year. After three years of sharing a room, Jin is now looking for her own room. HOBBIES "I like to study languages," Jin says, "especially Hebrew." She has even started translating Jewish traditions and holiday stories into Chinese. She says she also reads a lot, mostly in Chinese, books which she or others brings back from travels to China, or which she reads on the Internet. CIRCLE/FRIENDS "We know a lot of people who helped us when we came here, both classmates and teachers." There are people in Tel Aviv, Givat Ze'ev, Beit Shemesh, and other places around the country. In addition, the four young women meet almost weekly. "We've lived and done everything together for two years. We're like sisters." LANGUAGE Jin speaks English fluently. Her Hebrew studies, however, are going less well. After two sessions at the kibbutz ulpan, Jin was admitted to Level C based on her university Hebrew entrance exam. "At first it was fine," Jin says, "but after the first semester we got to Level D, and it was too hard for me." After the difficulty of the last semester, she says she needs a little break from Hebrew. RELIGION "Once you become Orthodox, it's hard to go back. You know very little no matter how much you study Torah, but it's difficult to go back to a life in which one doesn't know God." IDENTIFICATION "I'm a Kaifeng Jew." She describes herself as a tree that grew up in China, but whose roots are in Israel. "Torah is my water, and the mitzvot are my leaves." PLANS/DREAMS Jin plans to study international relations and dedicate herself to helping Kaifeng Jews return to Israel. "There are problems at the Interior Ministry to bring more Kaifeng Jews," she says, and explains that she'd like to gain a diplomatic position in order to help resolve some of the internal and foreign issues standing in the way of further repatriation. To propose an immigrant for an 'Arrivals' profile, please send a one paragraph e-mail to: