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Friday, June 10, 2005 | return to: opinions


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From China to Jerusalem — a remarkable return

by michael freund

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Slowly and somewhat hesitantly, Shlomo and Dina Jin walked into the room, anxious to hear the rabbinical court's decision regarding their request to return to the Jewish people. It was a moment of profound significance, not only for this affable couple, who had traveled down a long and often agonizing path, but also for the community they left behind in their native China.

Shlomo Jin hails from Kaifeng, which lies south of the Yellow River, some 650 miles from Beijing. He is a descendant of the city's once-thriving Jewish community, which first settled in the area during the reign of the Song dynasty over 1,000 years ago.

According to legend, the Song emperor had difficulty pronouncing the new arrivals' Hebrew names, so he conferred his surname and those of six of his ministers on the Chinese Jews. These seven names - Zhao, Li, Ai, Zhang, Gao, Jin and Shi - were used by Kaifeng's Jews throughout the centuries, and it is to the Jin clan that Shlomo traces his roots.

Unlike most other stops in the Jewish people's wanderings, China provided them with a warm reception, free of the hatred and oppression that was their lot elsewhere in the diaspora.

Over the centuries, China's Jews engaged in trades and various professions, and many rose to prominent posts in the imperial civil service system. At its peak, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the community in Kaifeng may have numbered as many as 5,000 people.

In 1163, Kaifeng's Jews built a beautiful synagogue, which was subsequently renovated and rebuilt numerous times. It adjoined the city's Jewish district, at the heart of which was a street called Jiao Jing, or "Teaching Scripture Lane."

To preserve their collective memory for future generations, Kaifeng's Jews erected stone monuments known as steles, constructed in 1489, 1512, 1663 and 1669, on which they inscribed the history of their sojourn in China. Two of the steles now sit in Kaifeng's municipal museum.

By the middle of the 1800s, widespread assimilation and intermarriage had taken a heavy toll, weakening the community spiritually and numerically. The last rabbi of Kaifeng died sometime in the first half of the 19th century; a few decades later the synagogue and the community it had served were no more.

Against all odds, Kaifeng's Jews struggled to preserve their sense of Jewish identity and consciousness, passing down whatever little they knew to their children and grandchildren. Simultaneously they appealed for help to world Jewry: A century ago, they pleaded for teachers and rabbis to be sent to educate their youth and replenish their Jewish knowledge and practice.

Sadly, that call went largely unheeded, and it seemed as if the curtain was finally going to come down on the 1,000-year long saga of Kaifeng Jewry.

Until now, that is. When Shlomo Jin went before the rabbinical conversion court in Jerusalem two weeks ago, it marked the closing of a historical circle. For the first time, a family of Kaifeng Jewish descendants returned to the Jewish people and to the Land of Israel.

Shlomo and his wife had spent the past year studying Judaism under the tutelage of a Chinese-speaking yeshiva student, hired for the purpose by Shavei Israel. Shlomo's daughter Shalva had previously undergone conversion by a rabbinical court in Haifa, and now it was time for Shlomo and his wife, Dina, to do the same.

They answered the judges' questions on various matters of Jewish law and practice and demonstrated their commitment to living an observant Jewish lifestyle. The rabbis treated them with kindness and respect and were clearly moved by their personal and historical saga.

When told they had been accepted back into the fold of the Jewish people, Shlomo's and Dina's tears of joy flowed. The dream they had nurtured for so long was at last coming true.

But I have no doubt that at least some of those tears were inspired by their treatment at the hands of Israel's government, which has consistently shown an appalling lack of interest in the fate of Kaifeng's Jewish descendants, several hundred of whom still remain in China.

Shortly after China and Israel established diplomatic relations in 1992, Shlomo Jin went to the Israeli embassy in Beijing, bearing in his hand his Chinese residence permit listing his nationality as "Jew." He wanted to submit an application to make aliyah so that he could fulfill his lifelong dream of going to Zion.

When the embassy clerk learned of the reason for his visit, Shlomo was told to leave. For two full days he waited outside, hoping someone from the embassy would at least come out to hear his story and perhaps try to help. But just as his ancestors' calls for assistance to world Jewry had gone unheeded, so too did Shlomo's, and he was forced to return to Kaifeng empty-handed.

When, at last, Shlomo made it to Israel five years ago, he and his family were given the cold shoulder by the Interior Ministry, which repeatedly sought to expel them from the country. Rather than embracing Shlomo as a long-lost brother coming home, Israeli authorities treated him like an illegal alien.

Hopefully those days are now behind the Jins, and they can look forward to building a Jewish future in Jerusalem. Shalva is doing her national service at Shaare Zedek Hospital, while Shlomo and Dina are looking for work.

The odyssey of the Jin family is an inspiring lesson in the power of Jewish memory. It demonstrates convincingly that no matter how far a Jewish soul may wander — even to the farthest reaches of China — it can, and ultimately will return.

There are many more such Jewish souls out there knocking on our collective door, seeking to be allowed in. The challenge for Israel is to cut through the red tape, and pave the way for them to do so.




Michael Freund is chairman of Shavei Israel (www.shavei.org), which helps "Lost Jews" return to the Jewish people.


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