Kaifeng To Host First Seder Since Mid-19th Century


The descendants of Jews who live in the ancient Jewish community of Kaifeng, China, are expected to participate in the first traditional Passover seder held there since the mid 19th century, accoding to a press release from Shavei Israel, a group that seeks to strengthen ties between Jews, the State of Israel and the descendants of Jewish communities worldwide.

The seder, which is expected to be attended by about 100 people, will be led next Monday evening by Tzuri (Heng) Shi, 28, who made aliyah from Kaifeng a number of years ago with the help of Shavei Israel, which is a non-profit based in Jerusalem.

Shi, who completed his formal return to Judaism last year, will be bringing with him all of the traditional items needed for a seder, including matza, kosher-for-Passover wine and cake, and Haggadahs written in both Hebrew and Chinese. In addition, there will be traditional charoset and red horseradish.

Michael Freund, the founder of Shavei Israel, pointed out: “Kaifeng’s Jewish descendants are a living link between China and the Jewish people, and it is very moving to see the remnants of this community returning to their Jewish roots as they prepare for Passover."

According to Shavei Israel, scholars believe the first Jews in Kaifeng were merchants from Iraq who arrived there during the 8th or 9th century while traveling east along the Silk Route. With the blessing of the Chinese emperor, they settled in Kaifeng – one of the imperial capitals — and numbered as many as 5,000 during the Ming Dynasty from 1368-1644. They built a large and beautiful synagogue that was renovated and rebuilt over the centuries.

But assimilation and intermarriage – coupled with the death of the community’s last rabbi – resulted in the demise of the Jewish community as a whole by the middle of the 19th century. Nevertheless, individual Jews continued to practice some Jewish customs and pass them down to their children.

It is estimated that there are about 1,000 descendants of Jews still living in Kaifeng, according to Shavei Israel. Freund said he has found that many of them have begun researching their roots with the help of the Internet, something that would have been impossible just a few years ago.