Return to Zion: ‘From the land of Sinim’

Jews from Kaifeng, China bring Isaiah's prophecy to life.

Kaifeng 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Kaifeng 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Israel’s Ben-Gurion Airport has been witness to many an emotional scene over the past few decades, as millions of Jews from around the world have come home to Zion after centuries of wandering. A veritable symphony of languages can often be heard in the arrivals hall, as Jews from as far afield as Russia, Brazil, Ethiopia and France have all taken the step of returning to the land where their ancestors once walked, just as the prophets foretold.
To that long and varied list of new immigrants can now be added another extraordinary group: the Jews of Kaifeng, China.
This fall, a group of seven young Chinese men sporting kippot, or skullcaps, on their heads disembarked in Tel Aviv to fulfill their long-cherished hope of making aliya. The new arrivals are descendants of Kaifeng's Jewish community, which flourished on the southern banks of China's Yellow River for more than 1,000 years. It marked the first time that an organized group had moved to Israel from Kaifeng since the establishment of the Jewish state.
“I am very excited to be here in the Holy Land,” said Ya’acov Wang. “This is something that my forefathers dreamed about for generations, and now thank God I have finally made it.”
Wang said he hopes to become a rabbi so that he can help other Kaifeng Jewish descendants learn more about their heritage.
Wang and the other young men spent their first few months in Israel learning Hebrew on a religious kibbutz. They are now studying the Bible every day and preparing to undergo a formal return to Judaism.
“We are so happy to be learning about how to worship God and to serve Him here in the Holy Land,” Wang said.
The new arrivals’ Jewish ancestors are believed by scholars to have settled in Kaifeng during the reign of the Song Dynasty over a millennia ago. China provided them with a warm reception, free of the hatred and oppression that was their lot elsewhere.
Over the centuries, China’s Jews engaged in trades and various professions, and many rose to prominent posts in the imperial civil service system. At its peak, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the community in Kaifeng may have numbered 5,000.
In 1163, Kaifeng’s Jews built a beautiful synagogue, which was subsequently renovated and rebuilt numerous times. It adjoined the city’s Jewish district, at the heart of which was a street called Jiao Jing, or Teaching Scripture Lane.
Wanting to preserve their collective memory for future generations, Kaifeng’s Jews erected stone monuments known as steles, constructed in 1489, 1512, 1663 and 1669, on which they inscribed the history of their sojourn in China. Two of the steles now sit in Kaifeng’s municipal museum.
By the middle of the 1800s, widespread assimilation and intermarriage had taken a heavy toll, weakening the community numerically and spiritually. The last rabbi of Kaifeng died in the first half of the 19th century. A few decades later, the synagogue and the community it had served were no more.
But against all odds, Kaifeng’s Jews struggled to preserve their Jewishness, passing down whatever little they knew to their children and grandchildren. They never forgot where they came from or where they dreamed of returning.
Scholars say there are still hundreds of people in Kaifeng who cling to their roots as descendants of the Jewish community, many of them showing an interest in reclaiming their heritage and going back to Zion.
Not many people realize it, but this too was foreseen by the prophets. “Behold these shall come from afar,” it says in the Book of Isaiah (49:12), “and these from the north and from the west, and these from the land of Sinim.”
In Hebrew, the word sinim means “Chinese.” And so before our very eyes, Isaiah’s prophecy is coming to life as Ya’acov Wang and his friends are gathered in from “the land of Sinim.”
Clearly, even in the farthest and most remote corners of the Exile, the God of Israel has not, and will not, forget His people. 
The writer is founder of Shavei Israel (, a Jerusalem-based organization that assists “lost Jews” to return to Zion. He may be contacted at