Taking the Silk Route Back Home

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Jin Jin and Nina Wang are students in Hebrew University's preparatory program. They will soon commence their BA studies, but they already have long-term dreams. Jin wants to eventually serve as a diplomat in the Foreign Ministry. Wang hopes to use her diverse knowledge of languages to represent Israeli companies in China. The two women belong to one of the smallest Jewish communities in Israel - immigrants from Kaifeng, China - which numbers just 10 souls.

Jin, 22, and Wang, 21, arrived in Israel at the beginning of 2006, together with two other friends from Kaifeng on tourist visas. They received temporary resident status after they begun conversion studies and received citizenship after undergoing a conversion ceremony in a rabbinical court. Wang explains that as children their parents and grandparents "told us we are Jews and that one day we'd return to our land." Jin Jin boasts, "We have a family burial plot that goes back dozens of generations, and we have genealogy books showing our connection with earlier generations of Jews."

Kaifeng Jews do not object to undergoing a "giyur l'chumra" - a conversion ceremony done for the sake of removing any doubt, in contrast to other groups such as Ethiopian Jews. According to them, their families intermarried with local Chinese over time, and didn't maintain Jewish traditions save for abstaining from pig meat, the one trait that differentiated them from their neighbors.

Most researchers, including former skeptics, now concur the community descends from Jewish traders who came to Kaifeng, the capital of the Chinese empire from 960 to 1127, and probably other cities. Evidence as to when they arrived ranges from the late Second Temple period to the seventh century. If they disagree on the timing of the Jews' arrival, scholars are almost certain they came as traders via the Silk Route. At some stage, according to community tradition, the emperor bestowed upon them Chinese family names, which they bear with pride to this day.

Civil wars and natural disasters tragically decimated the community in the mid-19th century, when its synagogue was said to be destroyed. Communal life has been virtually non-existent during the past 70 years. An estimated 600-1,000 people who identify themselves as Jewish descendants now reside in Kaifeng.

The town's Jews reconnected with mainstream Jewry thanks to visits by Jewish tourists, who brought learning materials and religious objects to local Jews. Jin's uncle Shlomo Jin went to the Israeli embassy in Beijing eight years ago seeking to immigrate to Israel. Embassy officials didn't want to hear about it, so he eventually came to Israel with his family via a European country. Shavei Israel, an organization which reaches out to lost Jewish communities, helped community members get accepted into a conversion program.

The girls describe their year in the conversion institute as stressful. "We felt we needed to learn because that's what we lacked," says Wang. In contrast to other conversion candidates, they didn't feel insulted by being required to strictly observe Jewish commandments. Michael Freund, the head of Shavei Israel, estimates the potential number of immigrants from Kaifeng to be no more than a few hundred. However, he described the community members as "people with very high motivation who we need to help them." Neither the Israeli government nor the Jewish Agency currently encourages the immigration or conversion of Kaifeng Jews, but Jin Jin and Nina Wang believe that within a generation a proper community of Jewish Chinese immigrants will be established in Israel.

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