Chinese descendants of Jews return to roots with seder

Kaifeng, a once thriving outpost of Jewish trading families, to hold communal Passover meal

Kaifeng (Photo Credit:CC BY-SA,drnantu/Flickr)
Kaifeng (Photo Credit:CC BY-SA,drnantu/Flickr)

Families of Jewish descent in Kaifeng, China, where a Jewish community of traders can be traced back over 1,000 years, are set to celebrate Passover with a traditional seder.

Tzuri (Heng) Shi a member of the community who has formally returned to Judaism and lives in Israel, is to visit his community to conduct the seder.

Passover supplies, including Haggadas (prayer books) prepared in Hebrew/Chinese, matzahs and other Kosher for Passover food, will also be shipped in for the occasion.

The seder is expected to draw some 100 people from the community, according to Shavei Israel, an organization that works with groups of “hidden Jews” from all over the world and is sponsoring the event.

Members of the Kaifeng Jewish community attend an event. (photo credit: image capture YouTube)
Members of the Kaifeng Jewish community attend an event. (photo credit: image capture YouTube)

Scholars believe the Kaifeng Jewish community was founded in the 8th or 9th century by Persian and Iraqi Jewish traders along the Silk Road, and at its height numbered some 5,000, with a synagogue, rabbi, educational institutions and a Jewish graveyard.

Over time, intermarriage and conversion to both Islam and Christianity weakened the community, and by the mid-19th century the formal group had largely disappeared, although descendants of the Jewish families, identifiable by surnames granted in the middle-ages, retained some Jewish identity and customs.

In the last few years, some members of the Kaifeng community, which numbers around 1,000, have begun connecting with their Jewish heritage and ties to Israel, said Michael Freund, head of Shavei Israel.

“In recent years, many members of the community have begun to explore their heritage – thanks in part to the Internet, which opened up new worlds for them and provided access to information about Judaism and Israel that was previously inaccessible to them,” Freund said.

A small number of community members have officially converted to Judaism and moved to Israel in recent years, including seven men who completed the process in 2013 and a group of four women in 2007.

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