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‘I Have to Be Here’

Five young Kaifeng Jews made aliyah on Monday

Jonathan Zalman
March 02, 2016
Laura Ben-David / Shavei Israel / Facebook
Laura Ben-David / Shavei Israel / Facebook
Laura Ben-David / Shavei Israel / Facebook
Laura Ben-David / Shavei Israel / Facebook

On Monday, a small group of young women arrived at Ben Gurion International Airport. They pushed big carts filled with luggage. They were given roses. One of them, Yue Ting, described how she was called “Jewish girl” growing up, when she also kept kosher. “I have to be here,” she said.

Yue Ting is one of a group of five, happy, wide-eyed Chinese women to arrive in Israel on Monday, a story that was covered by the local and national press alike. They were helped by Michael Freund and his organization Shavei Israel, which has helped 19 Jews from Kaifeng make aliyah since 2006. Reported NBC:

Yue and the four other women traveling with her are among some 1,000 traceable descendants of the Jewish community in Kaifeng, once the imperial capital of the Chinese Song dynasty. The Kaifeng’s Jewish population was established by travelling merchants from the Middle East and Persia as early as the 7th century and once numbered as many as 5,000.

Since their last synagogue was destroyed by floods more than two centuries ago and their rabbinical tradition died out, little remains of the city’s Jewish roots.

“We began to lose our Jewish tradition,” said Yue, whose family kept kosher growing up, but did not know how to pray or read in Hebrew.

Last year, Tablet Senior Editor Matthew Fishbane profiled Freund and Shavei, which “insists that there are Jews everywhere: You just need to know how to find them.”

Shavei, which Freund founded in 2002 and which employs a dozen people full time and operates on a seven-figure budget, is dedicated to the discovery and recognition of “lost Jews” or “newly found Jews,” which include alleged descendants of the lost tribes of Israel, crypto-Jews, hidden Jews, and self-proclaimants. The non-profit works to reverse the 2,000-year-old inward turn of the Jewish people, who have historically thought of themselves as separate and insular. Shavei has “emissaries,” paid or partially paid employees, in India, China, Russia, Poland, Spain, Portugal, Sicily, Colombia, El Salvador, and Chile. From the central office in Jerusalem, Shavei is “actively in touch with” two dozen other communities around the world, from Ecuador to Zimbabwe to Kyrgyzstan to Indonesia to Japan to Suriname to Lithuania.

During their first day in Israel, Yue Ting, Gao Yichen, Yue Ting, Li Jing, Li Yuan, and Li Chengjin visited the Kotel. Soon, they will begin studies at Nishmat, and prepare for conversion because they cannot prove their Jewish heritage, a “thorny question,” writes Fishbane.

…In 1970 Golda Meir amended the Law of Return to include spouses, children, grandchildren, children’s spouses, and grandchildren’s spouses of Jews, which eventually opened the gates of Israel to 1.8 million Russians, Poles, and Romanians—hundreds of thousands of whom were not Jewish.

Meir’s amendments attempted to provide further legal precision to the thorny question of which “Jews” could make aliyah. How much of a Jew did you have to be, exactly? Section 4B states: “For the purposes of this Law, ‘Jew’ means a person who was born of a Jewish mother or has become converted to Judaism and who is not a member of another religion.” No one seemed to mind the tautology: A Jew is someone who comes from a Jew, or becomes a Jew… Freund, meanwhile, is not willing, he says, to put people’s dreams on hold while the Jewish world debates these points.

“We’ve been struggling for 3-4 years to get the requisite permission to bring these young women here,” Freund said.

Of the year ahead for these five women, he added: “It’s an act of spiritual transformation. They are formally becoming a Jew and no one can question that once they have completed the process.”

Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.