August 20, 2010
Source: The Forward
Nathan Jeffay writes about seven descendants of the ancient Jewish community of Kaifeng in China who have come to study Judaism in Israel and rejoin the Jewish People.
Kaifeng’s Jews are said to have been merchants from Persia or Iraq who made their way eastward along the Silk Road and established themselves in the city with the blessing of the Chinese emperor. The Kaifeng Jewish community was founded over a thousand years ago, numbering in the thousands; however the community disintegrated in the mid-19th century, with the death of its last rabbi, and those members that hadn’t done so already intermarried and dropped most aspects of religious observance. The seven men in Jerusalem are descendants of this community in which families retained a sense of Jewish identity and, in some cases, in a manner reminiscent of the Marranos of Spain and Portugal, clung to some disjointed traditions.
In the past decade, some descendents of Kaifeng Jews have become increasingly interested in their heritage. There are about 1,000 people in Kaifeng who are aware of their descent from the Jewish community, and a core of 35 who have, for the past five years, been meeting for meals and prayers on the Sabbath. One organization that visited the Kaifeng community was Shavei Israel, a Jerusalem-based not-for-profit that exists to strengthen ties between Israel and descendants of Jews.
The Kaifeng young men spent their first six months in Israel on Sde Eliyahu, a religious kibbutz in the Bet She'an Valley. They took Hebrew-language classes in the morning and worked in the afternoon. For one month, they then lived in an apartment in Jerusalem and studied at the Machon Meir Yeshiva. And since the beginning of July they have been studying in a program that Shavei Israel compiled especially for them at Hamivtar Yeshiva in Efrat, which is headed by the Rabbi of Efrat, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin.