Shavei Israel founder and chair Michael Freund greeted the five women from Kaifeng – left to right, Gao Yichen, Li Chengjin, Li Yuan, Yue Ting and Li Jing – at Ben-Gurion Airport on Feb. 29. (photo by Laura Ben-David courtesy of Shavei Israel)
Last month, five women from the ancient Chinese Jewish community of Kaifeng arrived in Israel to fulfil their dreams of making aliyah, thanks to the Jerusalem-based nonprofit Shavei Israel.
The women – Gao Yichen (“Weiwei”), Yue Ting, Li Jing, Li Yuan and Li Chengjin (“Lulu”) – have been studying Hebrew and Judaism for several years in Kaifeng. Upon arrival in Israel, they were greeted by Shavei Israel chair Michael Freund, who took them straight from Ben-Gurion Airport to the Western Wall (Kotel) so they could thank God for helping them return to the land of their ancestors.
“Kaifeng’s Jewish descendants are a living link between China and the Jewish people,” said Freund, who succeeded in obtaining the requisite permission to bring the Chinese Jews on aliyah after several years of struggling with the Israeli bureaucracy.
“After centuries of assimilation, a growing number of the Kaifeng Jews in recent years have begun seeking to return to their roots and embrace their Jewish identity,” Freund said, adding that, “These five young women are determined to rejoin the Jewish people and become proud citizens of the Jewish state, and we are delighted to help them realize their dreams.”
Believed to have been founded by Iraqi or Persian Jewish merchants in the eighth or ninth century, Kaifeng’s Jewish community built a large synagogue in 1163, which was renovated throughout the years. At its peak, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the Kaifeng Jewish community may have numbered up to 5,000 people, but widespread intermarriage and assimilation, and the death of the community’s last rabbi, brought about its decline by the early 19th century. Today, the community claims between 500 to 1,000 members.
Despite the pressure to assimilate, many Kaifeng Jews sought to preserve their Jewish identity and pass it down to their descendants, who continue to observe Jewish customs. Today, the community is experiencing a revived interest in its roots, and Shavei Israel has been providing support while helping some immigrate to Israel.
“Being part of the Jewish people is an honor, because of the heritage and wisdom,” said Li Jing, who on a brief previous visit to Israel put a note of prayer in the Kotel asking to return and live in Israel. “Now, my prayer has been answered,” she said.
The last time Shavei Israel was able to bring a group of Chinese Jews from Kaifeng on aliyah was in October 2009, when seven young men from the community arrived in the Jewish state. The organization has brought a total of 19 members of the Kaifeng Jewish community to Israel.
The five women plan to continue their Jewish studies at Jerusalem’s Midreshet Nishmat – The Jeanie Schottenstein Centre for Advanced Torah Study for Women, with the support of Shavei Israel, which will also cover their living expenses and support them as they prepare to undergo formal conversion by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate. Upon completion of the conversion process, they will receive Israeli citizenship.
Shavei Israel 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. For more information, visit shavei.org.
A model of the Kaifeng synagogue at an exhibit at the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv in 2011. (photo by Sodabottle via commons.wikimedia.org)
With the Chinese New Year taking place next week, it is an appropriate time to reflect on the close and positive relationship between Jewish and Chinese peoples, which reaches back almost 2,000 years.
It might be simplest to begin with the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans in the year 70 of the Common Era. This was the climax of the first of three Jewish-Roman wars that would take place over the first and second centuries. The net result of these conflicts was the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Jews, the enslavement of many others, and those who managed to escape such tragedies fled as refugees. This scattering of Jews across the world we call the Diaspora ultimately resulted in the formation of the various communities we are familiar with today, such as the Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews. But there was a smaller, lesser-known Diaspora community that settled in China.
Between 206 BCE and 220 CE, China was ruled by the Han Dynasty. The Han established a vast international trading network that came to be known as the Silk Road. According to the oral history of the Chinese Jews, their ancestors first settled in China during the late Han Dynasty. Such a period would correspond with the Diaspora that followed the Jewish-Roman wars.
After the collapse of the Han Dynasty, the Silk Road trading network collapsed, but was reestablished in 639 CE during the Tang Dynasty. The Silk Road interconnected Tang Dynasty China with the wealthy states of India, East and North Africa, across Asia and into Europe. During the Medieval period, many Jews made their living as merchants. At this time, Christians and Muslims refused to trade directly with each other, and Jews earned great profits acting as intermediaries.
Many Jews traded along the Silk Road, the most prominent group of whom were the Radhanites, who inevitably found themselves in China. It is during this period that the first document indicating the presence of Jews in China has been found. It describes how a rebel leader executed foreign merchants and Jewish residents in the city of Guangzhou. Discovered at an important stop along the Silk Road in northwest China, the document dating to some point around the eighth or ninth centuries was written in a Jewish-Persian script on paper, which at the time would have only been available in China. Some historians have suggested that the Radhanites were responsible for bringing Chinese paper technology to Europe, although this theory is contested. The presence of Jews in Guangzhou at this time should not be surprising, considering it was an important port city linking Chinese and Middle Eastern trade. Guangzhou has one of the oldest mosques in the world and, at the beginning of the ninth century, may have had a population of as many as 100,000 foreigners.
In 908 CE, the Tang Dynasty fell, the Silk Road trading network again collapsed for several centuries and the prominence of the Radhanites declined. But this did not mean the end of the Jewish presence in China. Between 960 and 1279 CE, China was ruled by the innovative and prosperous Song Dynasty, with their capital city at Kaifeng. Kaifeng has been described as the New York of its day. It was a massive cosmopolitan city, a centre of global trade and the largest city in the world, reaching a population of 1.5 million people.
Though Jews would settle in other cities, such as Hangzhou, Ningbo, Ningxia and Yangzhou, most were in Kaifeng, and it became the centre of Chinese Jewry. The first synagogue was built in Kaifeng in 1163 CE. It was made of wood, in a Chinese architectural style. It would be destroyed and rebuilt many times throughout its history. The Jews of Kaifeng were held in high esteem by the Song emperors, and went on to pursue successful careers not only as merchants, but as court officials, scholars and soldiers. There is still a Kaifeng Jewish community today.
In the early 12th century, the first Jin emperor, Wanyan Aguda, unified the Jurchen, a group of tribal peoples living in Manchuria. The Jurchen waged war against the Song Dynasty and, in 1127, Jurchen forces conquered Kaifeng, an event that has come to be known as the Jinkang Incident. After this battle, the Song capital was moved south to Hangzhou, and many of the Kaifeng Jews accompanied the Song rulers in their migration. Nevertheless, there were some who stayed in Kaifeng. The Jurchen established the Jin Dynasty, and continued to wage war against the Song Dynasty for more than 100 years. Eventually, both the Jin and the Song were conquered by the Mongols in the 13th century.
In 1232, the Mongols besieged Kaifeng. During the conflict, the Jin used rockets against the Mongol invaders, which is the first use of rockets in warfare in recorded history; a technology all-too-familiar to the modern residents of Israel. In the mid-14th century, the Mongol rulers of China established the Yuan Dynasty, with their capital in Beijing. When Marco Polo traveled to Beijing in 1266, he wrote about the importance of Jewish merchants there.
In 1276, the Mongols conquered the Song capital of Hangzhou. In 1280, the Mongol emperor, Kublai Khan, issued a decree banning Jews from kosher practices and circumcision. Yuan Dynasty documents written in 1329 and 1354 issue a request of Jewish residents in China to go to Beijing to pay taxes. Though many atrocities occurred during the Mongol invasions, their rule was nevertheless marked by flourishing trade and the Jewish communities of China persisted.
At the site of the synagogue in Kaifeng, several stone steles have been recovered. The oldest, written in 1489, commemorates the construction of the synagogue in 1163. It describes how the Jews first entered China during the late Han Dynasty, and the Jinkang Incident, including how many of the Jewish population of Kaifeng fled to Hangzhou. Also inscribed on this stele were the following words: “The Confucian religion and this religion agree on essential points and differ in secondary ones.”
A second stone stele was made in 1512, which describes Jewish religious practices, which is fascinating considering it is written in Chinese. In 1642, a third stele commemorated the reconstruction of the synagogue in Kaifeng after it was destroyed by a flood. The synagogue was destroyed again by a flood in 1841, but was not rebuilt. This is likely due to the sociopolitical turmoil occurring in China at the time. It is interesting to note that, while Jews were persecuted, rejected and alienated by the nations of Europe, they were accepted and assimilated into Chinese culture.
During the 19th and early 20th centuries, persecution of Jews in Europe began again on a massive scale. The worst events of these times were the many pogroms in the Russian Empire, where hundreds of thousands of Jews were murdered, raped, robbed. Many Jews were forced to flee as refugees, some migrating to North America, some to Palestine, and some to China. The Russian Revolution in 1917 resulted in the deaths of around 250,000 Jews, and the orphaning of around 300,000 Jewish children. Many Russian Jews fled to the city of Harbin, in Manchuria, whose Jewish population reached 20,000. However, when the Japanese annexed Manchuria in 1931, many among that population left for Shanghai, Tianjin or Palestine.
Many Chinese intellectuals understood the plight of the Jewish people, and compared it to their own. The Chinese Nationalist and founder of the Republic of China, Dr. Sun Yat-sen, made the following comparison: “Though their country was destroyed, the Jewish nation has existed to this day…. Zionism is one of the greatest movements of the present time. All lovers of democracy cannot help but support wholeheartedly and welcome with enthusiasm the movement to restore your wonderful and historic nation, which has contributed so much to the civilization of the world and which rightfully deserves an honorable place in the family of nations.”
During the course of the Second World War, the Jewish population in China would swell to 40,000, many of whom resided in Shanghai. A number of Chinese diplomats helped smuggle in Jews using special protective passports. One such hero, a Chinese diplomat working in Vienna named Ho Feng Shan, helped Jews from Nazi-occupied Europe get to China, ultimately saving around 3,000 lives. Ho Feng Shan was posthumously awarded the title Righteous Among Nations by Yad Vashem in 2001.
In 1943, the Japanese forced the 20,000 Jews living in Shanghai into a ghetto that was around one square kilometre in size, with conditions described as squalid, impoverished and overcrowded. The Shanghai ghetto was also inhabited by some 100,000 Chinese residents.
The Nazis pressured the Japanese to execute the 40,000 Jews living in China, but the Japanese purposefully delayed the planned atrocity, ultimately saving the Jews’ lives. When the Japanese military governor of Shanghai informed the leaders of the Jewish community of the planned execution and asked them why the Germans hated them, one rabbi responded by saying “because we are short and dark-haired,” a reply that allegedly caused a smile to appear on the serious face of the governor. After the war, most of the Jews in China migrated to the newly formed state of Israel.
Ben Leyland is an Israeli-Canadian writer, and resident of Vancouver.
In August, the Jewish Independent connected with Gary Brownstone about a Winnipeg tech incubator he was working on called Eureka. In the short time since then, the entrepreneur has already moved on to his next adventure.
“Most of my career has been characterized by taking on multiyear projects,” said Brownstone. “In many cases, I’d be involved with or invest in small companies needing help growing to the next level. I’d grow them to the next level and then I would exit. But, generally, the projects I get involved in have a Point A and a Point B, and my mission is to take them from A to B.
“When I went to the Eureka Project, which was an incubator in Winnipeg that a group of individuals together with government and the U of M [University of Manitoba] had tried to launch, for all intents and purposes, [it] had failed. They hadn’t achieved what they’d set out to.”
Brownstone was brought onto the Eureka team to try to save it. They needed answers to three questions. Was there enough world-class talent in Winnipeg to make a venture like this worthwhile? Could the incubator help advance their causes and spin off commercial enterprises? And could Brownstone help make the operation sustainable?
“A big challenge with incubation is that early- stage companies can’t always afford to pay market rates for help, but governments don’t want to pick up the costs forever,” said Brownstone. “When I got to the project, the Manitoba government was covering about 90% of the operating budget.
“The first two [questions] we solved in a relatively short period of time. But, the sustainability issue was longer and … this year, we saw a third of those solved with the signing of a multiyear funding agreement with the province – with them only needing to cover about 30% of our operating budget.”
Seeing that a service like the one he was providing in Manitoba was needed everywhere in Canada, Brownstone move on to create a small practice under the name of LucraTech. He soon had several clients across Canada, the largest one situated in Vancouver, where he now spends about 60% of his time. The other clients are located in Manitoba, Ontario and Nova Scotia.
“I’ve got some associates that I bring into jobs as needed,” said Brownstone. “We are building up our business across Canada and have been for about six months now with some pretty decent success.”
The Vancouver-based company with which Brownstone is working is Canada’s largest technology incubation platform, Istuary Innovation Group. “This is a group of Chinese Canadians who see an opportunity to invest in or acquire Canadian technology for which there could be a market in China,” said Brownstone. “Their expertise is taking Canadian-developed world-class technology into China, where there’s a big market and hunger for this technology … so, these guys are trying to bridge the gap.
“Let’s say that you are an engineer and you have some unique approach to internet security, and they know that, today, in China, on an industrial level, there’s a huge demand for internet security. If they feel that your technology is suitable for that market, they will offer to do a deal with you, and they are very flexible about how they do that. They may offer you employment in one of their innovation labs or, if you had an existing company and were looking for investors, they would invest in you and help you access that market, or they could represent you on an agency basis.”
According to Brownstone, any Canadian technology looking for a home in the Chinese market can likely be aided by Istuary. He believes that Canada is in a unique position and has an advantage over other countries, due to the quality of its schools for engineering, computer programming and related fields, like clean technology and light sciences.
“There is also very strong R&D support in Canada, both federally and provincially,” said Brownstone. “The government will often match every dollar I invest. There is also a very strong tax-credit program, [and] rebates offered will sometimes offset the big costs of R&D.” As well, he added, Canada is an attractive place for developing technology at the moment with the low Canadian dollar compared to that of the United States.
LucraTech aims to take on a series of projects with each client and create a support team to work with that client, beginning by identifying a starting point and an end point.
“Typically, the companies we start working with are small,” said Brownstone. “They have some customers, they have some revenue, but they are trying to grow to the next level. Maybe you have a company that is doing $300,000 a year in revenue and you want to grow that to $3 million in the next couple of years. We create a road map and a plan that will get you from $300,000 to $3 million, and work with you to achieve that.
“By the time you are at $3 million, you’re probably at a size where you can get and manage the support talent in-house and you can now afford more full-time employees, so maybe we aren’t needed anymore at that level of expertise.”
LucraTech offers other services, as well, such as turnaround, wherein they take on medium-sized companies that, for one reason or another, have encountered some trouble and need help. In this scenario, LucraTech goes in and tries to fix the problem and make the company healthy again. Their typical timeline with clients can be anywhere from one to four years.
“If we believe in a company and the entrepreneur and we can add value to the whole equation, we are very flexible on how we work with companies and usually give them two or three choices. We know we will only get paid if the project goes ahead,” said Brownstone.
“Sometimes, we work just for success fees, where we set out to raise money for a company … sort of a finder’s fee. If we are successful, we get paid. If not, we don’t. Sometimes, we will work for a piece of the business or a small number of shares in the business. We’re really flexible. Once we believe in the concept and the entrepreneur, we will find a way to make it work, whether they have a lot or a little money.”
On Sept. 7, I arrived in Beijing for a 10-month adventure – teaching Hebrew at Peking University. (Yes, this is what it is still called.)
Among the many preparations I had to make for this journey were learning some basic Mandarin, downloading and scanning for the students a huge amount of Hebrew material that would not be accessible from China, and packing clothes for three seasons. I also had to think about celebrating the High Holidays away from my family.
On the internet, I learned that Beijing’s Jewish community enjoys two congregations: Chabad, as one would expect almost anywhere in the world, and Kehillat Beijing, “an egalitarian, unaffiliated, lay-led Jewish community organization.” The latter has a rabbi, but only a guest one, and only during High Holidays. This year, they invited, for the second time, Rabbi Jack Shlachter, a physicist-rabbi from Los Alamos, N.M. What a small world! His wife, Bruria (Beverly), who would accompany him, was one of my mini-ulpan students in Santa Fe last year! In an email exchange, she assured me that Kehillat Beijing is a warm and welcoming community and, by the way, would I mind taking part and reading a passage during the Yom Kippur service?
The first few days on campus are full of bureaucratically required errands, and they are a good way to get familiar with the geography of my new and fascinating environment – a beautiful campus, part of which was the southern edge of a huge imperial garden. Surprisingly, it doesn’t feel as foreign as I expected it would. Global village? Still, there are enough things, even those on the mundane side, which are so different and curious, they promise more surprises.
Three days after arrival, I venture into the super-modern subway, heading to the Israeli embassy. The ambassador’s wife had invited Israeli women in Beijing for an informal potluck evening to welcome the New Year, and I am on the list. The instructions I receive from a student are clear: change from Line 4 to 10, take Exit B, walk two blocks into the diplomatic part of the city, and I am there.
There are about 20 women from what seems to be a close-knit group. Among them, a now local restaurateur, an architect, some businesswomen, an event planner, the Chabad rebbitzen, embassy employees, and wives of businessmen or embassy workers, taking time off from their jobs in Israel and enjoying all that Beijing has to offer – a good group for a newcomer to get her first tips about life in China. Late at night and after a rainstorm, I safely walk to the subway and back to my campus residence.
On Friday night, I head to Kehillat Beijing. I take the same subway station, but Exit A gives me my first glimpse of a busy downtown street, a shopping centre, hotels, the construction site of a large and creatively shaped tower, many tiny little – some elegant – stores (are all stores in Beijing so small?) and street food prepared and sold in small carts.
KB meets every Friday evening on the third floor of the Capital Club Athletic Centre. Local Jews, fluent in Mandarin, living in China for periods ranging from a few years to a couple of decades – business owners, financiers, ESL teachers, people working in the American, Canadian and Israeli embassies, students of Chinese or Chinese medicine, and others – get together with local Chinese who are searching for a new spiritual path, as well as with visitors. These visitors are tourists, exchange students and university professors, here temporarily, or those with great ideas, who come to explore business potentials.
The service this time is led by the guest rabbi in front a Chinese antique piece that has been turned into a small ark. If you look carefully, you will notice the probably unintentional Magen David-like decorations on its doors.
The KB logo, embroidered on their kippot, also has a Magen David in it, only here it replaces one element of the Chinese characters denoting the word Beijing. It is something to take home for your kippa collection.
After the service, there are announcements – and a surprise. One of the organizers of Limmud China, which alternates yearly between Beijing and Shanghai, tells us about this year’s event in November, and invites potential presenters to apply. I approach him and offer to do so, in this way compensating for having had to withdraw my offer to present at Limmud Vancouver 2016.
Friday and holiday services at KB are usually followed by dinner. Attendees buy a ticket but, for students, it is subsidized. The social mix at every table ensures interesting and lively conversations.
Saturday is my first day as a real tourist. I visit the Confucius temple site, with its ancient trees and long library “avenue” – all the Confucian wisdom engraved in close to 200 stelas, each more than twice a man-size tall. At the end, a class of university history students stages their version of an ancient bow and arrow shooting competition in historical clothing.
The next day is erev Rosh Hashana and Rabbi Jack leads the service in a meaningful, beautiful way. At my dinner table sits a British journalism professor, an American government envoy here to discuss drug issues with Chinese officials, a father visiting his Chinese-language-student son and an American university librarian hunting for both Jewish and Arabic publications produced in China, accompanied by two young guests: a Chinese woman writing her master’s thesis on Cynthia Ozick’s work and an Arabic-Chinese translator working in Chinese television. For both, it is their first time in a synagogue. The translator speaks to me in the formal literary Arabic he learned at Peking U and in Sudan, and I answer in my colloquial Arabic, explaining the meaning of the various Jewish New Year customs.
The next day, after Kiddush and a bite of challa dipped in honey, we head to nearby LiangMa (Bright Horse) River for Tashlich, right beside a few fishermen sitting patiently, waiting to hook a fish. From there, we walk for a few blocks and sit on the roof of a brewery, reserved today especially for the KB community to share in vegetarian pizza and drinks. It is an enjoyable, almost family-like, holiday gathering that extends to the late afternoon. By now, I feel quite at home. I speak Hebrew and English at this table and another and, from a trilingual (English, Chinese and Hebrew) 10-year-old girl, I get a detailed explanation and demonstration of the different tones and, hence, meaning of two Chinese words that sound equal to my ear.
On the second day of Rosh Hashana, KB does not hold services, and I join Rabbi Jack and Bruria at Chabad for another warm welcome. I am surprised to find a few of my new acquaintances from KB now here at Chabad. Dividing your “Jewish time” between the two very different congregations is not uncommon, I am told. In Beijing, the two communities collaborate, especially when it comes to the local Sunday school.
In between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, school starts, and I meet my new students, as well as sprinkle in another couple of outings. I witness the locals dancing, playing games and singing, individually and in large groups, in their historical, beautifully preserved parks, taking advantage of the still nice weather and the unusually low pollution levels.
The Saturday between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is a musical Shabbat at KB. The service is accompanied by a group comprised of members of the congregation and of Moishe House, with their instruments. Moishe House in Beijing seems to be very active, their events include dinners, movie nights, cultural discussions, speakers, holiday celebrations and community service events. They are also central in the preparations for Limmud and host its organizing meeting.
Yom Kippur I spend again with KB, starting with the meal before the fast and ending with the break fast, but for the first night of Sukkot, I head again to Chabad to sit in the sukka. This evening is busy. On top on their usual varied crowd, they are hosting a group of Chabad followers from New York, a tour organized by the Beijing rabbi as a fundraiser for the local day school, Gannenu. As erev Sukkot coincides this year with the Chinese Mid-
Autumn (Moon) Festival, the sukka, which usually would not be decorated, after the Chabad custom, now has bright, red Chinese lanterns hanging from its schach (covering), and traditional (kosher) moon cakes are served for dessert in small, red paper bags.
Barely three weeks and so much to remember already, with the Jewish aspects only being a part of my experiences so far, albeit a significant part. And there are nine more months to go. For the first time in my life, I have started writing a diary, lest I forget.
Rahel Halabeteaches biblical and modern Hebrew in Vancouver and, this year, in Beijing. She is the author of Hinneh: Biblical Hebrew the Practical Way, and a translator of Arabic literature into Hebrew.
A senior delegation from Shengjing visits JVP in Jerusalem. (photo by Yael Rivkind, JVP, via israel21c.org)
Fiona Darmon, a partner at JVP, one of Israel’s most successful venture capital funds, was recently in China at a meeting with a large investor. She sat in his office for more than an hour, chatting with him about everything but business. Only then, she said, did he nod to his subordinates, and Darmon was taken into another room, where the business discussions began.
“The mindset in China is that if we’re going to do business and I’m going to entrust you with my capital, let’s see if we have a personal rapport before I even move to the next step,” Darmon told this reporter. “It’s about you as a person, first.”
Israelis are not known for their patience, and that can be a challenge, said Ilan Maor, a managing director of Sheng-BDO (Business Development Organization) and a former Israeli consul in China. Yet economic ties are “booming,” he said.
“The most important aspects of the commercial cooperation are gradually moving from buying and selling toward the main pillars of the future of technology and investment,” Maor explained. “China is taking its place gradually as a strategic player in the Israeli market.”
As an example, the Chinese company Bright Star is on the verge of buying a majority stake in Tnuva, Israel’s iconic dairy company. The company is so central to Israel’s image of itself that, on leaving Israel, the last thing you see on the way to duty free is the logo of Tnuva’s cottage cheese container made out of flowers. If the sale goes through as expected, China and Israel’s kibbutz cooperative movement will share ownership of the dairy company.
More and more Chinese business people are visiting Israel looking to invest and to learn from Israel’s entrepreneurs.
“Israel is not only the ‘startup nation,’ it is also the ‘innovation nation,’” said Xueling Cao, director of the Shengjing Group, who was in Israel when she spoke with this reporter. “China is a huge consumer market and Israel is a huge source of innovation and technology, and we can match the two together.”