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].”