Kaifeng Jews make aliyah
Photo: Michael Freund
It would probably be difficult to tell the difference between the seven youngsters who arrived Tuesday at Ben Gurion airport, and the thousands of Chinese construction workers living in Israel. However, the young Chinese arrivals, aged 19 to 23, are descendants of an ancient Jewish community which originated from the city of Kaifeng.
Immediately following their arrival, the seven knelt down and kissed the soil of the Holy Land. "My dream is to complete the process of converting to Judaism and become a certified rabbi, after which I will return to my community and serve as its first rabbi since the dissolve of the Jewish community some 150 years ago," said 23-year-old Yaacob Wang. "I am excited to arrive to the holy land. It is a dream come true," he added.
The first destination on the new immigrants' list was the Western Wall, where they prayed "Shehecheyanu", a blessing recited upon a noteworthy achievement.
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"I cannot believe after all these years I get to finally visit the Western Wall which I dreamt of for years and drew in many of my drawings," said Hang Shir, 24.
The group's trip to Israel was arranged by Shavei Israel organization, which has been in contact with the Israeli government over the past two years, and recently received authorization from the Ministry of Interior to give the seven a one-year entrance permit, during which they will study Hebrew and go through the conversion process.
Shavei Israel founder Michael Freund, who funded the project out of his own pocket, said Tuesday "this is an experimental project, and if it proves successful, we will bring more descendants of the Kaifeng community, of which a little less than half would like to make Aliyah."
It is still not clear exactly when the first Jews arrived to China, and around what year the Kaifeng community, which currently has some 1,000 members, was established.
However, according to the prevailing theory among scientist as well as Kaifeng Jews' descendants, the community's ancestors were merchants from Persia, who arrived to Kaifeng – then the capital of China — via the silk road during the 10th and 12th centuries.
Although the Kaifeng Jews almost completely assimilated, their descendants continued to observe certain traditions such as not consuming pork, which is the main meat product in China, baking matzo during Passover, painting their frame-head in red instead of a mezuzah, and lighting Hanukkah candles.
In recent years, some decedents of the community began searching for their roots. "One explanation is the internet, which allowed them access to information about Judaism and Israel, which they wouldn't have been able to get otherwise," said Freund.
Recently, three young Kaifeng Jews made aliyah with the help of Shavei Israel, completed their conversion process, and became full citizens of Israel. This time, the organized group will live in the religious Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu, where they will study Hebrew for five months, after which they will complete their conversion.