Ancient Chinese Jewish Community of Kaifeng Celebrates Hanukkah

Shavei-2A few dozen Chinese Jews in Kaifeng, China, gathered tonight with an emissary of the Shavei Israel organization to celebrate the first night of Hanukkah and light the traditional menorah candles. “The Chinese Jews take their inspiration from the Maccabees,” said Shavei Israel Chairman and Founder Michael Freund. “Even in far-off Kaifeng, the light of Jewish survival continues to burn brightly. Kaifeng’s Jewish descendants are a living link between China and the Jewish people.”

Shavei-1Freund added that even “after centuries of assimilation, a growing number of Kaifeng’s Jews have begun seeking to return to their roots and embrace their Jewish identity. They are trying to figure out why it’s important to be Jewish and we want to help them have a stronger Jewish identity.”

Scholars believe the first Jews settled in Kaifeng, which was one of China’s imperial capitals, during the 8th or 9th century. They are said to have been Sephardic-Jewish merchants from Persia or Iraq who made their way eastward along the Silk Route and established themselves in the city with the blessing of the Chinese emperor.

Kaifeng SynagogueIn 1163, Kaifeng’s Jews built a large and beautiful synagogue, which was subsequently renovated and rebuilt on numerous occasions. At its peak, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the Kaifeng Jewish community may have numbered as many as 5,000 people. But widespread intermarriage and assimilation, as well as the death of the community’s last rabbi, brought about its demise by the middle of the 19th century.

Nevertheless, many of the families sought to preserve their Jewish identity and pass it down to their descendants, who continued to observe Jewish customs. Currently, there are estimated to be approximately 1,000 Jewish descendants in Kaifeng. In recent years, Shavei Israel has helped a number of young Chinese Jews from Kaifeng to make aliyah to Israel.

Shavei Israel is a non-profit organization founded by Michael Freund, who immigrated to Israel from the United States with the aim of strengthening the ties between the Jewish people, the State of Israel and the descendants of Jews around the world. The organization is currently active in more than a dozen countries and provides assistance to a variety of communities such as the Bnei Menashe of India, the Bnei Anousim (referred to by the derogatory term “Marranos” by historians) in Spain, Portugal and South America, the Subbotnik Jews of Russia, the Jewish community of Kaifeng in China, descendants of Jews living in Poland, and others.

The 2,000th ‘Lost Tribe’ Bnei Menashe Immigrant Arrives in Tel Aviv


Mirna Singsit, 18, from the state of Manipur in northeast India, is the 2,000th Bnei Menashe Olah to make aliyah to Israel. She arrived in Israel last week along with 53 other Bnei Menashe community members from Manipur on a group flight facilitated by the Shavei Israel organization. Immediately after landing at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, Singsit received a special certificate from Shavei Israel Chairman Michael Freund, officially recognizing her as the 2,000th Bnei Menashe member to reach the Jewish homeland.

More after the jump.
Mirna Singsit is making aliyah with both of her parents and three brothers. She left behind her grandparent, four uncles and two aunts in Manipur to fulfill her lifelong dream of living in Israel. Singsit was a student at Churachandpur University in Manipur studying for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science, which she hopes to continue in Israel and eventually become a school teacher.

“I’m so very happy right now I can hardly express it in words. Not only has this been my dream since I was born, but it has been my peoples’ dream for thousands of years and now it has finally come true,” said Singsit upon her emotional arrival in Israel. “I still don’t know where my parents are planning to move after our time in the absorption center, but I personally dream about living in Jerusalem, the Holiest place on Earth, and hope to move there sometime in the very near future.”

“This is an incredibly emotional day for all of us,” said Shavei Israel Chairman Michael Freund as he welcomed Singsit and her family to Israel. “The arrival of the 2000th Bnei Menashe immigrant is a milestone for the community and for the Jewish state. After 27 centuries of exile, the lost tribe of Bnei Menashe is truly coming home. But we will not rest until all the remaining Bnei Menashe still in India are able to make aliyah as well,” Freund added.


Singsit and Freund

Last October, the Israeli cabinet passed an historic and unanimous decision which formally restarted the Bnei Menashe aliyah after a five year hiatus, and granted Shavei Israel permission to bring an initial group of 275 Bnei Menashe to Israel. The immigrants came on five flights over the past month, all of which were facilitated by Shavei Israel and sponsored by Jewish and Christian philanthropists, foremost among them the ICEJ.

Upon arrival, the Bnei Menashe are taken to Shavei Israel’s absorption center in Givat Haviva where they will reside during their initial months in the country. Subsequently, they will move to the cities of Acre and Migdal Haemek in the north of Israel. The new arrivals join the 1,725 Bnei Menashe who are already living in the Jewish state, and have become an integral part of Israeli society. Before this most recent aliyah, the last Bnei Menashe flights to arrive in Israel were in 2007 carrying 230 Olim, and in 2006 carrying 219.

The Bnei Menashe (Hebrew for “sons of Manasseh”) claim descent from one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, who were sent into exile by the Assyrian Empire more than 27 centuries ago. They live in India’s northeastern border states of Manipur and Mizoram. Their ancestors wandered through Central Asia and the Far East for centuries, before settling in what is now northeastern India, along the border with Burma and Bangladesh. Throughout their exile, the Bnei Menashe nonetheless continued to practice Judaism just as their ancestors did, including observing the Sabbath, keeping kosher, celebrating the festivals and following the laws of family purity. And they continued to nourish the dream of one day returning to the land of their ancestors, the Land of Israel.

The Bnei Menashe who currently live in Israel reside in the cities of Jerusalem, Ma’alot, Karmiel, Nitzan and Kiryat Arba. Around 7,000 still remain in India, waiting for the day when they too will be able to return to Israel and the Jewish people. Shavei Israel is the only organization that is working on behalf of the Bnei Menashe.

Shavei Israel is a non-profit organization founded by Michael Freund, who immigrated to Israel from the United States, with the aim of strengthening ties with the descendants of Jews around the world. The organization is currently active in nine countries and provides assistance to a variety of different communities such as the “Bnei Menashe” of India, the “Bnei Anousim” in Spain, Portugal and South America, the “Subbotnik Jews” of Russia, the Jewish community of Kaifeng in China, the “Hidden Jews” of Poland from the Holocaust era and others.

25 Young Poles Discover Jewish Roots and Arrive in Israel

— by Jen Glantz

JERUSALEM (August 21, 2012) – 25 young Polish Jews, many of whom have only recently discovered their Jewish roots, arrived in Israel yesterday, August 20, for a special seminar organized by Shavei Israel, an organization that aims to strengthen the connection between descendants of Jews and the State of Israel & the Jewish people. The participants, between the ages of 18-35, most of whom were raised Catholic, came from a variety of cities throughout Poland, primarily Krakow, Katowice, Warsaw, Przemysl and Gdansk. For many it marks their first time visiting Israel.

Photo credit: Mariusz Frej. Courtesy of Shavei Israel.

More after the jump.
“There is a growing thirst among young Poles with Jewish roots to learn more about their Jewish religious and cultural heritage,” said Shavei Israel Chairman Michael Freund. “This awakening would have been unthinkable just 25 or 30 years ago, but since the downfall of Communism, an increasing number of Poles have sought to reclaim and affirm their Jewish identity. We owe it to them to assist them in any way that we can.”

Freund added that,

with the start of the new Jewish year just a few weeks away, it is fitting that these young Poles have come to Israel to rekindle their bond with the Jewish people. They represent the future of Polish Jewry, which despite decades of suffering and persecution is now beginning to thrive. There can be no sweeter revenge for what was done to us seven decades ago in Poland than to reconnect as many of these young Polish Jews as possible with Israel and the Jewish people.

The unique program, which is run by Shavei Israel’s team of Polish-speaking rabbis and educators, is designed to assist them in discovering more about their Jewish roots and learning more about ancient and modern-day Israel. Among the topics that will be covered are the laws of Shabbat; the upcoming festivals of Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Sukkot; and “Keeping kosher in a non-kosher world.” Participants will also study the weekly Torah portion that is read in synagogue.

Sessions will be led by Rabbis Baruch Babaev, Yitzchak Rappoport, Avraham Rabitz and Dawid Szychowska, along with Shavei Israel’s emissary to Krakow, Rabbi Boaz Pash, and its emissary to Katowice, Rabbi Yehoshua Ellis. Morning, afternoon and evening prayer services will also be available.

Not only will the young Poles delve deeper into Jewish study in the classroom, but they will also have an opportunity to tour various sites in Israel such as Masada and the Dead Sea, and the northern part of the country including the Sea of Galilee and the Kabbalistic city of Safed. The group will also visit the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem and explore the Western Wall tunnels.

Two special activities include a meeting with the Polish Ambassador to Israel, and an all-day study seminar at a local yeshiva.

Today, there are approximately 4,000 Jews registered as living in Poland, but experts suggest there may be tens of thousands of other Jews in Poland who to this day are either hiding their identities or are simply unaware of their family heritage. In recent years, a growing number of such people, popularly known as the “Hidden Jews of Poland”, have begun to return to Judaism and to the Jewish people.

Shavei Israel is a non-profit organization founded by Michael Freund, who immigrated to Israel from the United States, with the aim of strengthening the ties between the Jewish people, the State of Israel and the descendants of Jews around the world. The organization is currently active in nine countries and provides assistance to a variety of different communities such as the Bnei Menashe of India, the Bnei Anousim (referred to as the derogatory “Marranos” by historians) in Spain, Portugal and South America, the Subbotnik Jews of Russia, the Jewish community of Kaifeng in China, descendants of Jews living in Poland, and others.  

Shavei Israel currently has two full-time emissaries in Poland located in Krakow and Katowice.