Five Chinese women, descended from the medieval Jewish community of Kaifeng, are set to arrive in Israel today. The women, Gao Yichen (“Weiwei”), Yue Ting, Li Jing, Li Yuan, and Li Chengjin (“Lulu”), have studied Hebrew and Judaism to prepare themselves for their journey, as they return to the heritage of their ancestors.
Upon their arrival, the five women will visit the Kosel before making their way to Midreshet Nishmat, The Jeanie Schottenstein Center for Advanced Torah Study for Women, where they will prepare for their official conversion to Judaism under the auspices of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate.
The women will live in the seminary until the completion of their geirus, after which they will receive Israeli citizenship.
Kaifeng’s Jewish community is believed to have been founded by Iraqi or Persian Jewish merchants in the eighth or ninth century. A shul was erected there in 1163 and still stands today. According to estimates, the community consisted of up to 5,000 Jews during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) but decreased to 500-1000 due to wide-scale assimilation and intermarriage.
According to Michael Freund, chairman of the Shavei Israel organization responsible for bringing the women to Israel, the Kaifeng community was similar to other Jewish communities except that it did not suffer anti-Semitism.
“As a result, beginning perhaps in the 18th century, a process of assimilation and intermarriage began to settle in. Then, the last rabbi of Kaifeng passed away 200 years ago, and the synagogue was rendered unfit for use when a series of floods struck the city in the 19th century,” Freund said.
However, Freund said that close to 1,000 remain who are identifiable as descendants of the Jewish community and who have shown increasing interest in learning about Judaism and their heritage. Such interest has enabled Freund’s organization to bring many Chinese to Israel, the last group of seven men arriving in October 2009.
Freund further explained that around 25 years ago, Jews were given the option of registering either as regular Han Chinese or, for unknown reasons, as Muslims. “Many opted to register as Muslims since this enabled them to have more than one child, but they are still identifiable as descendants of Jews even if some of them have nothing to do with Judaism,” Freund said.
“Being part of the Jewish people is an honor because of the heritage and wisdom,” said Li Jing, who on a previous visit put a note of prayer in the Kosel asking to return and live in Israel. “Now, my prayer has been answered,” she said.
Alexander J. Apfel / Tazpit Press Service (TPS)