Just a year ago, seven Jews from Kaifeng, China were living near the Yellow River. Now, these seven individuals, clad in Orthodox Jewish kippahs and tzitzit, are studying at a yeshiva in Israel,
and earning their place in history as the first group of Chinese Jewish men from Kaifeng to do so.
On the road to full Orthodox conversion, these dedicated Jews will be exchanging their visitor visas for aliyah visas to make their trip to Israel a permanent one.
A Jewish community has lived in Kaifeng from at least the Northern Song Dynasty (960–1127) until the late nineteenth century, Kaifeng being Northern Song's capital. The seven Chinese Jewish men are descendants of this ancient Jewish community.
An inscription found in Kaifeng, dating back to the year 1489, states that the Jews may have originally come to China from India as early as the Han Dynasty period (2nd century BCE-2nd century CE).
By the mid-19th century, however, after the death of their last rabbi, the community dispersed and the Kaifeng Jews became a lost Diasporic group.
Now trying to reclaim their Jewish roots, the seven students have spent their first six months in Israel on a religious kibbutz. The students also took morning Hebrew classes and spent a month in an apartment in Jerusalem studying at the Machon Meir Yeshiva.
With the help of an organization called Shavei Israel (Returners to Israel), a non-profit initiative, programs have been designed to help Jews like those from Kaifeng to strengthen their connection to their Jewish roots, and allow them to return to the Jewish state. One of these programs is held at Hamivtar Yeshiva in Efrat, led by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin.
Though many strict rabbis would question the Jewish authenticity of the Kaifeng Jews, Riskin, as well as other rabbinates, have chosen to accept the ancient community.
The seven Chinese yeshiva students are among the last of the Kaifeng Jews to be aware of their Jewish background. According to Jewish Daily Forward, there are about 1,000 people in Kaifeng aware of their Jewish descent. Thirty-five out of that thousand have for the past five years been hosting meals and prayers for Shabbat.
Some of the students told the Jewish Daily Forward that they found out about their roots in their teens. Others grew up in families that always avoided pork, while others maintained other Jewish traditions.
Regardless, these students are creating history in their dedication to their roots through the study of the Jewish faith, and well on their way to becoming a recognized part of Israel’s diverse Jewish community.
Reprinted with permission from Shalom Life