Jewish Community of Kaifeng Holds First Traditional Seder

The traditional burning of hametz before Passover; photo by  Jason Jia Shuo.

The traditional burning of hametz before Passover; photo by Jason Jia Shuo.

Nearly 100 members of the ancient Jewish community of Kaifeng, China, came together last week for a first-of-its-kind traditional Passover Seder. The Seder – sponsored by the Jerusalem-based Shavei Israel organization – was led by 28-year-old Tzuri (Heng) Shi, who made Aliyah from Kaifeng a few years ago and completed his formal return to Judaism last year.

As part of the preparation for the upcoming Seder, Tzuri was sent to Kaifeng by the Shavei Israel organization with all of the traditional Passover items including: Matzah packages, Kosher for Passover wine, Haggadahs which were prepared especially in Hebrew and Chinese, Kosher for Passover cakes, traditional red horseradish, and traditional Charoset.

Chinese Jews cleaning the Shavei Israel Hebrew Center in Kaifeng, China  for Passover in advance of the start of the holiday Jason Jia Shuo.

Chinese Jews cleaning the Shavei Israel Hebrew Center in Kaifeng
prior to the beginning of chag; photo by Jason Jia Shuo.

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.

In 1163, Kaifeng’s Jews built a large and beautiful synagogue, which was subsequently renovated and rebuilt on numerous occasions throughout the centuries. 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.

The Chinese Jews at the Passover Seder, led by Boaz (the man with his finger in the air), recall the 10 plagues with which G-d smote the Egyptians. To the right of Boaz is Ram, the Chazan (cantor) of the community who appears in the VeHi SheAmdah video that we sent out (in the original release below).

Members of the Jewish community at the Seder, led by Boaz (the man with his finger in the air), recall the 10 plagues with which G-d smote the Egyptians. To the right of Boaz is Ram, the Chazan of the community; photo by Jason Jia Shuo.

Nevertheless, many of the families sought to preserve their Jewish identity and pass it down to their descendants, who continued to observe various Jewish customs. Currently, there are estimated to be approximately 1,000 Jewish descendants in Kaifeng.

Shavei Israel Chairman and Founder Michael Freund told eJP, “In recent years, many members of the community have begun to explore their heritage – thanks in part to the Internet, which opened up new worlds for them and provided access to information about Judaism and Israel that was previously inaccessible [to them].”

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  1. says

    This year’s seder was not the first of its kind in Kai Feng by any stretch of the imagination. Nor was it the first that Shavei Zion chair Michael Freund knew about. He inquired and was told in detail about the seder run by an Israeli Masorti rabbi last year, at which all the non-Messianic Jewish elements of the community were present, and that was not the first one in recent years either. (There are “Messianic Jews” making inroads into the community of descendants of Kai Feng Jewry.) This year’s was simply the first one that Shavei Zion wanted to publicize, and they would prefer that it be labeled “first” when it was nothing of the sort because the second or third such event is hardly news.

  2. Andrew says

    Last time:

    I too have now posted and wait mederation.

    My comment:

    Sorry you bought into the Shavei PR machine in this matter (as did the Forward, The Times of Israel, the Jerusalem Post, and others). It is the hallmark of sloppy journalism not to do any fact checking. It is easy to calim to be a first at something. It is quite another to be the first.

    Let me start by saying that I was there for the community Seder last year. It was the community Seder and around 60 attended. Indeed we had KP wine, Matzot and all other accouterments needed for a traditional Seder. The Seder took place in the Jewish School.

    Yes, there was a small second group but a very good reason why they were excluded (if you Google anything I write here you will find support for the facts). They were excluded because the leader/teacher associated with the group was a man named Timothy Learner who was/is a messianic “Jew.” His salary was (no longer as far as I am told) covered by Shavei – albeit on condition that he refrained from bringing in his messianic thinking.

    As for it being the first time the Seder being led by a convert who had made Aliyah- take a look at the singing of HaTikvah on the You Tube video. Next to me is Jiaxin (pronounced Shin) who spent 9-12th grades at Yemin Orde. He was converted by a Masorti Beit Din at AJU (Brandeis Summer institute) and will be going into the army very shortly. He led the Seder along with me and locals. You may see the conclusion of the Seder here on You Tube.

    I met with Michael right after my return from Kaifeng and briefed him on everything I did there. We discussed the Seder in detail. He knew of who did what and where we obtained food. He knew we did Seder in the Jewish school (not the Learner school).