Kaifeng Comes to Toronto

Published: June 12th 2010
in News » Local

Shi Lei, a direct descendant of the Chinese historic Jewish community in Kaifeng.
Pic: Kulanu

“Hello Canada.  Shalom Darchei Noam.” So Shi Lei, the direct descendant of the historic Jewish community in Kaifeng, greeted the standing-room only audience at Darchei Noam Synagogue in Toronto.


He was eager to tell his story and to connect with Jews here.  Speaking in barely accented English, the 34-year old resident of Kaifeng, the only place in China with an ongoing Jewish community, came to talk about the Jews of Kaifeng.


Kaifeng is a city in the eastern part of China, about 900 kilometres south of Beijing. In the 11th Century, during the Soong Dynasty, it boasted one and half million people and was the capital of China. One of the cities on the Silk Road, it was well known throughout the ancient world. Traders came regularly, even from Palestine.


When the Muslims entered Persia, Jews were discriminated against and persecuted. They decided to settle in Kaifeng.  About 1,000 embarked on the arduous long journey, traveling through deserts on camels to arrive in the place they would never leave for a thousand years.


Shi Lei explained that the emperor of China welcomed them warmly and ordered them to “respect the traditions of your ancestors and hand them down to your children.”


“Never was there ever any anti-Semitism in China,” he said.  “In World War Two, Shanghai was the only city to open it’s arms to  Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis.”


In 1163, they built a synagogue that looked like a huge pagoda, with its red tiled curved roofs.  They called it “The Temple of Purity and Truth.”


The main philosophy in China was Confucianism. Jews realized that to be successful they would become Chinese officials and to do that they had to pass civil service exams in Confucianism. “For 2,000 years and even today, this philosophy has influenced the Chinese,” he told the warmly receptive audience. 


The synagogue was destroyed by torrential flooding of the Yellow River. Intermarriage became common. The last Rabbi died in 1810. Neglected and overlooked by the rest of the Jewish world, by the 1850s the Jews  assimilated  into Chinese society and “our community fell apart,” said Shi Lei. 


But remarkably, even though “we abandoned Torah and tradition, we always remembered that we are from Israel and Jews. This never stopped.”


Influenced by a visiting rabbi from New York, Shi Lei felt the stirring of his Jewishness grow into a mission. He went to Israel to study Jewish history and religion at Bar Ilan University, continuing his studies at Machon Meir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. Now he lives in Kaifeng and teaches his community Judaism and Hebrew. Eighteen young people from Kaifeng are now studying in Israel.


A  tour guide, Shi Lei leads private and group tours to Kaifeng and other Chinese cities with Jewish sites of interest, including Beijng, Harbin, Xi’an and Shanghai.


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