Kaifeng Jews

Around the 1900s, the Sassoon family, de facto leaders of the Shanghai Jewish community, founded the Shanghai Society for the Rescue of Chinese Jews in order to reach out to the Kaifeng Jews, hoping to help them rediscover their Jewish roots and reconnect with their Jewish heritage.

On April 5, 1901, a Kaifeng Jew by the name of Li King-Sheng wrote a letter to the Shanghai Society for the Rescue of Chinese Jews. Li was fifty-two years old at the time and passed away two years later. In this letter, Li wrote that there were only about 250 descendants of Jews, or 50 families, left in the community. Li mentioned that none of these people could read or write Hebrew; Sabbath was not observed and Mosaic Laws not followed. They no longer congregated around the old synagogue and were scattered all over the city. Some worked as junior government officials, some shop owners. The only things that distinguished them and the other Chinese were that they did not worship idols and they did not eat pork.

The Shanghai Society for the Rescue of Chinese Jew offered to sponsor some of the Jews in Kaifeng to come to Shanghai, to teach them the basic Judaic rituals such as circumcision and kosher slaughtering. Two Jews, a father and a son, from the Li clan came to Shanghai first. They were later joined by six other Jews.

Corner of a modern Kaifeng Jew’s home. [Nicholas Zhang Archives]

Corner of a modern Kaifeng Jew’s home. [Nicholas Zhang Archives]

S. M. Perlmann, author of the book The History of the Jews in China, recorded that eight Kaifeng Jews came to Shanghai early in 1913 and were shown the proper way to live a Jewish life. They visited many Jewish homes, made many trips to synagogues and watched many Jewish ceremonies. Perlmann observed that the Kaifeng Jews were of “low intellect and lacking education” but able to read the Bible “thanks to the instructions they had received in Shanghai.” He also noted that the Chinese servants in the Shanghai Jewish families were amazed by the way the Jews of Kaifeng were treated: although they were of a low social status they were treated with much respect, as if they were esteemed, high profiled guests. 

All the Jews from Kaifeng expressed a strong desire for financial support in order to rebuild their synagogue following its destruction in the Qing Dynasty. The Shanghai Society for the Rescue of Chinese Jew had planned to provide the resources needed to rebuild the synagogue. However, Japanese occupation of Shanghai and the influx of refugee from Russia and Central Europe meant the Kaifeng synagogue was no longer a priority for the Shanghai Jewish community. Attention and funds were diverted to more urgent needs.