Brief Introduction to Jewish Centers in China
A tour of these Chinese Jewish Centers can be arranged. Check my tours page for more information.
The first major wave of Jews, primarily from Baghdad and Bombay, came to Shanghai after the city was opened to foreign traders in 1842 following the Opium War. A second wave of Jewish immigrants came from Russia in the decades following the 1917 Russian Revolution. The third wave of Jews moved to Shanghai from central Europe in the 1930s and during WWII. The stream of Jewish refugees increased after Kristallnacht and became a flood in 1939. By 1941, about twenty thousand refugees from Germany, Austria, and Poland had arrived in Shanghai. From 1933 to 1941, this city accepted about 30,000 Jewish refugees coming from Europe, more refugees than those taken in by Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India combined during World War II.
A number of outstanding Jewish intellectuals and professionals were among the wartime refugees. For example, Dr. Jacob Rosenfeld (1903-1952), a Viennese Jew who arrived in Shanghai in 1939, later became the highest ranking foreign-born military official in the Chinese liberation force. He spent much of his life saving Chinese lives — soldiers, generals, and peasants alike in numerous battles against the Japanese. More than half a century later, he is celebrated as an external symbol of Sino-Israel friendship. A hospital where he worked in Lunang, Shangdong province, is named Luo Sheng Te Hospital after Dr. Rosenfeld’s Chinese name. The China Postal Bureau issued a special memorial postal series as the Chinese remember this brave Jewish doctor on his 100th anniversary this year.
After the eastern branch of the Siberia Railroad was constructed in the 19th century, many Jewish people came from Russia and other Eastern European regions to Harbin. When the Russian Revolution broke out in 1917, many more Jewish people arrived, and by 1920, there were more than 20,000 Jewish people in Harbin.
The Jews quickly developed their culture in Harbin, China’s northeastern industrial center. With the establishment of synagogues, stores, banks, hospitals, theatres, libraries, tobacco factories, beer factories, charities, insurance companies and publishing houses, a complete Jewish social system was formed, bringing something new to the city. Harbin’s 19th and early 20th century architecture showed strong characteristics of this Jewish presence, including a well-kept Jewish synagogue on Tongjiang Street of the Daoli District.
The local government invested time and money to protect the Jewish relics. The old Jewish school is now a First Class Protected Building (the highest ranking protection by Chinese authorities). When Harbin’s Cultural Park in Nangang district underwent reconstruction, the local government invested millions of Yuan to move a Jewish cemetery from the park to the eastern outskirts of the city. Today, the relocated Royal Hill Cemetery is well-preserved and protected. The Israeli government and Jewish guests from around the world have been deeply touched by what the Chinese people of Harbin have done for those who came to seek refuge from persecution.
Harbin became an asylum for Jewish people in the 19th century, and the local residents willingly protected their heritage. After World War II, large numbers of Jews moved overseas and now they primarily live in Israel, the US, Australia and European countries.
At the beginning of the Song dynasty (960-1127 CE), a thriving Jewish community took root in the Song capital of Kaifeng (called Dongjing at the time).
The Jews of Kaifeng asked their Chinese neighbours to call them yi ci le ye (that is chinese transliteration for Yisrael), and they initially maintained close contact with their native communities. When the Jews first arrived in Kaifeng, an emperor of Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127) issued an edict to the Jewish immigrants, telling them to “keep and follow the customs and habits of your ancestors and hand them down in Dongjing (Kaifeng’s ancient name).” The Emperors in the following dynasties bestowed upon them different Chinese surnames.
The immigrants practiced Judaism and built a synagogue in 1163. The 1489 inscription of a stone tablet of the Synagogue commemorates the Jewish traders’ audience with the emperor, who ordained them to revere and preserve the customs of their forefathers. An inscription on the back of the stone tablet, dated 1512, suggests the existence of Jewish settlements in other parts of China. The synagogue became dilapidated gradually and fell in ruin around 1850’s. The flood of 1849 destroyed the remaining ruins of the synagogue, and it was never rebuilt again.
Kaifeng Jews integrated certain Confucian customs into their own monotheistic religion. The Jewish elite found they had less time to study Torah as their livelihood and status were dependent upon the concentration of Chinese classics. These Torahs were eventually sold to Christian missionaries. The Torahs that are known to have survived are in Oxford University, Toronto University, Southern Methodist University, American Bible Society, Hebrew Union College, and the Jewish Theological Seminary. A Chinese-language Torah of the Kaifeng synagogue is now in the British Museum in London.
Today only three surviving stone steles remain among the ruins of the Kaifeng synagogue, rebuilt for the final time in 1653. Rare pictures of the synagogue can be found by visiting Mini-Jewish Museum in Kaifeng (that is also Kaifeng Jewish Community Center).