JERUSALEM – Yaakov Wang emerged from a ritual bath near Tel Aviv last week and was welcomed by a rabbi into Judaism. He was one of seven young men from China’s Henan Province to have completed a conversion process in Israel, according to a report in Haaretz.
Wang, unlike his six compatriots, intends to study for the rabbinate and return to his native city of Kaifeng on the Yellow River. He would become the first spiritual leader in more than 200 years of an ancient, almost forgotten, Chinese Jewish community that has virtually disappeared through assimilation.
According to scholars, Jewish merchants likely from India or Persia who settled in the town, which was located on a branch of the Silk Road, probably founded the community about 1,000 years ago.
At its peak, the community is said to have numbered 5,000 people. A synagogue known as the Temple of Purity and Goodness was built along with a study hall, a ritual bath, and a communal kitchen in 1163. It was eventually destroyed in a flood.
After centuries as a coherent group, the Jewish community dwindled through intermarriage, particularly after the death of its last rabbi in the 19th Century. There is no longer a Jewish community as such in the Kaifeng metropolitan area where nearly five million persons live.
However, about 1,000 residents regard themselves through family tradition as descendants of the ancient Jewish community. Although they are indistinguishable in appearance from the other Chinese around them, many retain Jewish customs handed down by their elders, like not eating pork.
Wang, 26, says that his Jewish first name,Yaacov, was given him by his grandfather. "My grandparents always told us that we were descendents of the Jews," he told Haaretz. "I wanted to know more."
The arrival in Kaifeng of Jewish tourists from the West has sharpened interest among the descendants in their Jewish roots in the past two decades. About a dozen of them have begun meeting on Sabbath eve each week for a prayer service but their knowledge of Jewish prayer is scant.
The trip to Israel by the seven young men, all in their 20s, was facilitated by Shavei Israel, a non-profit organization based in Jerusalem which seeks to locate traces of "lost" Jewish communities around the world and reconnect them to the religion.
"It is the closing of a historical circle," the organization’s director, Michael Freund told Haaretz following completion of the group’s conversion process.
One of the converts, Xue Fei—known today by the Hebrew name Yonatan—had practiced dentistry in Kaifeng and said he wants to become certified as a dentist in Israel.
"I feel as if I have been reborn," he told Haaretz. The seven learned Hebrew and studied religious texts in a yeshiva in a course devised especially for them in Israel. Six underwent circumcision (the seventh was already circumcised). They expressed readiness to undertake army service and voiced hopes of finding suitable wives, preferably from the large community of Persian Jews in Israel in acknowledgement of their own presumed Persian heritage.