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Jewish community in China to celebrate traditional Passover seder for the first time

By Mason White 4:18 PM April 8, 2014
Jews in Kaifeng, China 

By: Anav Silverman
An Israeli organization is preparing the Jewish community in China, for their first ever traditional Passover seder, the Tazpit News Agency reported.

In Kaifeng, members of the ancient Jewish community were recently heard singing V’hi She’amda in Hebrew, a traditional song from the Passover Haggadah, led by the Kaifeng community cantor, Ram, in preparation for their first Passover seder.

Nearly 100 members of the ancient Jewish community are expected to attend a first-of-its-kind traditional Passover seder that will take place next week, at the start of the holiday. The seder, which is being sponsored by the Jerusalem-based Shavei Israel organization, will be led by 28-year-old Tzuri (Heng) Shi, who made aliyah to Israel from Kaifeng a few years ago with the help of Shavei Israel.

As part of the preparations, Tzuri was sent to Kaifeng by the Shavei Israel organization with all the traditional Passover items including Passover Matzah, Kosher for Passover wine, traditional Charoset and horseradish, as well as Passover Haggadahs. The Haggadahs are in Hebrew and Chinese.

Historians believe that 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.

Kaifeng also houses China’s oldest known synagogue. 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 reached its height of 5,000 people with rabbis, synagogues and Jewish institutions. However, widespread intermarriage and assimilation, as well as the death of the community’s last rabbi two centuries ago, brought about its demise by the middle of the 19th century.

The community was then forced to sell the synagogue and Torah scrolls. 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 between 500 to 1,000 identifiable Jewish descendants in Kaifeng.