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Topic of talk in Wayne: Chinese Jews of Kaifeng

Charles ZusmanLocal | World
Published: 04 June 2010

On Passover, Shi Lei and the other Jews in the city of Kaifeng eat Chinese pancakes. It’s not exactly matzoh, “but it is unleavened,” he said.

That accommodation, and others, is emblematic of an ancient Jewish community’s effort to revive its religious traditions, eroded over the passing centuries as its members assimilated into the life of their city and country.

But the light of Judaism never went out. “We always knew we were Jewish because our parents and grandparents told us,” said Shi Lei. “They told us we are Jews, we are from Israel.”

“This information is never forgotten,” he said.

Shi Lei, 32, spoke on a recent Sunday to more than 200 rapt listeners at Temple Beth Tikvah in Wayne. It was his last stop on a speaking tour that took him across the country and into Canada, during which he told the story of how his ancestors came from Persia and settled in Kaifeng in the years 960 to 1127 CE.

Close to 1,000 years have since gone by, and “we never left,” he said.

China is a different place today from what it was just a few years ago, and part of that change is a move by the some 500 residents of Kaifeng, who identify as Jewish, to rekindle their Jewish lives. It is a “learning” experience, Shi Lei said.

After the talk, Shi Lei, center, chats with Jeff Haveson, left, and Yehuda Ben Lewi, both of Ahavas Sholom in Newark. photos by Charles Zusman

In 2001 Shi Lei, who majored in English literature at Kaifeng University, went to Israel. He studied for one year at Bar-Ilan University and then for two years at Mahon Meir yeshiva in Jerusalem. He is fluent in Hebrew and speaks flawless English.

His trip was prompted by a meeting with Rabbi Marvin Tokayer, who served as a rabbi in Japan and traveled extensively in Asia. Speaking from his home in Great Neck, N.Y., Tokayer told how he met Shi Lei on a visit to Kaifeng.

The man knew little about Jewish practices, Tokayer recalled, “but he was asking so many, many questions” that the rabbi suggested he go to Israel to study. Shi Lei’s parents greeted the rabbi like a long-lost relative, and readily agreed to their son’s trip.

After one year at Bar-Ilan, Shi Lei said, he learned a lot but there was so much more to learn, so he stayed another two years at Mahon Meir, Tokayer recalled.

Back in Kaifeng, Shi Lei serves as a teacher to the rest of the community, 18 of whom have since also visited Israel. They were assisted in their visit by Shavei Israel, an organization that helps those with Jewish roots return to their Jewish identity.

Their ancient synagogue is no more, but Shi Lei has converted the home of his late grandparents into a mini-museum and community center, in which the group meets.

For larger gatherings, the group uses a Muslim restaurant, where dietary laws are similar to Jewish ones. Cost and logistics make it impossible for the group to keep kosher, “but we never eat pork,” Shi Lei said. They honor the dietary laws in spirit, he explained.

The group does not have a traditional scribed Torah, but rather has a printed version translated into Chinese. Also, they have simple prayer books written in Chinese, Shi Lei said. They are learning about the holidays and rituals, and light Friday night candles. For Passover they have Chinese-language Haggadahs.

“I am teaching in the Ashkenazic way,” he said, but Sephardic tradition might better reflect the group’s Persian roots, he added. In any case, Jews in China must “find their own way” and adapt to the country they are in. Traditional practices stopped three or four generations ago, Shi Lei said, but the Kaifeng Jews are relearning how to celebrate their faith.

One of the historic drawings Shi Lei showed depicts two Kaifeng Jews with Western facial features but wearing Chinese-style pigtails. Intermarriage has made its mark, and later photos, from about 1910, show Kaifeng Jews with Chinese-appearing facial features.

Shi Lei drew a laugh from the audience when one man said there were a number of intermarriages in his family with people of Chinese descent. “I’m glad it (intermarriage) is happening here too,” Shi Lei responded.

While Jews are living in other Chinese cities — Beijing, Shanghai, Canton, and Hong Kong — they are not Chinese, Shi Lei said. There are Chabad houses in Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong, but not Kaifeng.

Shi Lei is a licensed tour guide specializing in Jewish sites ( He laced his presentation with enticing tidbits of history and illustrated it with a slide show of historic paintings and illustrations (

A thousand years ago Kaifeng was a bustling city of some 1.5 million and the capital of China, Shi Lei said. Although it was unknown in the West, it was likely the largest city in the world at that time, he said.

The Jews came as merchants, following the Silk Road, a trading route across the desert, bringing cotton cloth to trade, a material unknown in China, Shi Lei said. Their arrival drew the attention of the emperor, who welcomed the Jews and told them to keep their faith and honor their ancestors.

It was during the Song Dynasty, and Shi Lei was uncertain which emperor was in power. If the emperor said something, it was an edict, and the Jews in effect became Chinese citizens, he said.

The synagogue was built in 1136 in Kaifeng, which lies about 800 kilometers south of Beijing, near the coast. The community must have been wealthy, Shi Lei said, because the synagogue was built on a large piece of prime property at the center of the city.

The synagogue was rebuilt in 1279 and lasted for centuries. The last rabbi died in 1805, and the synagogue fell into disrepair and disappeared in 1860, Shi Lei said. The remnants of a mikvah have been found at the site.

Over the years, the Jews moved from the business world and many learned Confucian ways and became government officials. They became more and more assimilated and intermarried. Slowly their Jewish practices faded away, Shi Lei explained.

There was a likely a Jewish presence in China in the eighth or ninth century, Shi Lei said, pointing to figurines showing men with “Semitic-looking” features. He also cited a document of the period that was written in Hebrew on paper. Paper existed only in China at that time, he said. The Jews were likely merchants, passing through, he said.

He showed illustrations of the synagogue — built Chinese pagoda style. The interior drawings show the “Moses chair,” where, Shi Lei explained, the Torah would be placed. The worshippers faced West during prayer, Shi Lei said, in the the direction of Jerusalem.

Shi Lei will be in the United States for another speaking tour next year, with a session tentatively planned for the 92d Street Y in Manhattan Feb 15 at 8:15 p.m., Bograd said. Interested groups can e-mail to engage Shi Lei for a presentation, Bograd said.

“The reaction [to the talk] was unbelievable,” said Richard Moskow, a past president of Temple Beth Tikvah. “People wouldn’t let him go” as they plied him with questions, Moskow said. “It was wonderful.”

Shi Lei is single-handedly trying to “resurrect the Jewish religion in China,” Moskow said, and even though he isn’t ordained, he is, in effect, the rabbi of Kaifeng.


Local congregations dig deeper into environmental issues

GreenFaith — which since 1992 has worked with interfaith groups around the country to educate them about environmental responsibility — last year initiated a certification program to help houses of worship become environmental leaders.

“It’s the first program of its kind,” said Rev. Fletcher Harper, an Episcopal priest and GreenFaith’s executive director.

“It differs from past programs because it’s much more comprehensive that anything we’ve ever launched,” he said, noting that upon completion, participating congregations will become certified GreenFaith Sanctuaries.

This month, the certification program was inaugurated in New Jersey, in partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism. Among the eight synagogues enrolled in the Greening Reform Judaism Pilot Program are Temple Sinai of Tenafly and Barnert Temple of Franklin Lakes.

“The congregations take part in a substantial number of activities over a two-year period,” said Harper, noting that participants are asked to integrate environmental themes into worship services, build environmental consciousness into all education programs, and advocate — and encourage members to advocate — for environmental justice.


To implement their new programs, participating congregations create a “green team,” responsible for carrying out the initiatives, said Harper.

“We think this program transforms congregations, turning them into solid environmental leaders,” he said, pointing out that houses of worship throughout the country that participated in last year’s program have not only seen measurable environmental benefits but have also seen their congregations strengthened.

“I think it’s a grand slam,” he said.

Rabbi Jordan Millstein, religious leader of Temple Sinai, said his “green team” is meeting on Sunday and he expects that virtually everyone in the synagogue will be affected by its efforts.

“‘Transform’ is the right word,” he said, noting that the team is composed not only of people who are personally interested in environmental issues but of those who hold key positions in the congregation as lay leaders and staff.

“They’ll be able to deal with the whole range of things that go on in congregational life so that, first and foremost, the congregation will operate in a more environmentally sensitive way,” he said. Millstein noted that “the certification program asks that we do specific educational programming on all levels [and throughout] the different educational arms of the congregation,” including not only the religious school but early childhood and adult education programs as well.

“It will impact things done across the board,” he said. “It’s a way of really galvanizing and energizing the congregation to be active in the way we should be.”

“We have been doing things, but in fits and starts,” he said, pointing to a major environmental program the synagogue sponsored last year with Kehillat Kesher. “It was a great program, but the problem with operating that way is that there’s no structure in place to follow up.”

Millstein said he is particularly excited by “the connection between environmental issues and Judaism. As a rabbi, I always struggle with people feeling that somehow Judaism isn’t really relevant in terms of the world around us.”

“The coming together of environmentalist thinking and Torah is one of the most interesting and powerful forces developing in modern Judaism today,” he said. “I’m absolutely convinced that when people see how Judaism looks at the earth, God’s relationship with the earth and with human beings, and the specific halacha [regarding] how to treat God’s creatures and the world, it will be energizing and people will recognize that it is deeply relevant. It will become a real spiritual movement as well as ‘the right thing to do.’”

Barnert’s religious leader, Rabbi Elyse Frishman, said she fully expects her congregation to be “challenged” through its participation in the program.

“We’ve done the basics,” she said, pointing to programs “letting everyone know about [energy-efficient] light bulbs and giving out free bulbs. We’ve also determined our own carbon footprint and have contributed money to plant a forest to offset that footprint.”

In addition, children in the religious school distributed glass bottles to members to discourage the use of plastic bottles.

Still, said Frishman, “we realized that it’s not very much; we weren’t really making a difference. The primary distinction is that this challenges us,” she said. “It’s really meant to push us.”

Frishman suggested that humans “are physically designed to be integrated into the earth.” She pointed out that when we breathe in, we draw in oxygen from vegetation. When we breathe out, we give back carbon dioxide. The human ego, however, “forgets” that the eco-system is interdependent.

Instead of using the earth to benefit everyone, she said, we tend to benefit ourselves.

“We think of ourselves as the center,” she said. “The mission has gone awry. God has breathed life into us, and there’s no sense of God taking that breath back in. We can draw in that breath and give it back.”

But doing that is very hard, she said, especially with the “American ethic, where it’s ‘all about me.’”

Frishman said she is excited about the certification program.

“It will work to convince me of certain things and I will learn to teach it more effectively,” she said.

“It wasn’t an easy thing for us to say yes to,” she added, noting that while the leader of the synagogue’s green team is already on board, “the rest of us are ‘normal.’ It’s not easy to figure out how to really change what we do. I have a feeling there’s a great deal more for us to learn,” she said. “A much larger cultural shift has to take place.”


Temple Sinai program targets unaffiliated Jews

Educators unveil new initiatives

For some time, Risa Tannenbaum and Sara Kaplan have been concerned about the children in their congregation who — after going through Temple Sinai’s early childhood program — might “miss some Jewishness” during the year before they enter kindergarten.

To create a “bridge” for these children and, said the two educators, serve both their own congregation and the entire community, they have created a program at the Tenafly Reform synagogue, “reaching out to the unaffiliated in the community who might want to have a taste of Judaism.”

Tannenbaum, director of the shul’s early childhood center for the past three years, describes the new venture as “a free pre-K parent/child interactive holiday program for unaffiliated families in the community.” The monthly sessions, for 4- to 5-year-olds and their parents, provide a way for families to “dip their feet” in Jewish life, she said.

The synagogue — which, she said, is fully subsidizing the program and has already hired one teacher — “is very excited about it.”

Kaplan, who has served as Temple Sinai’s director of education for 14 years, noted that the program, including stories, arts and crafts, and movement and dance, is likely to draw both parents from interfaith families and those Jewish parents who simply want to know more about Judaism.

It will also allow parents to meet the rabbi, cantor, and synagogue educators and visit the kindergarten. Tannenbaum and Kaplan said they hope this will “drum up” students for the kindergarten program and spur families to join the synagogue.

Sara Kaplan, left, the shul’s director of education, says it’s important to work on values. Parenting is a challenge, says early childhood director Risa Tannenbaum, right. Courtesy Temple Sinai

“It’s less threatening to learn with your children,” said Tannenbaum, pointing out that no previous knowledge is necessary to attend.

“Parents need encouragement,” added Kaplan, suggesting that even in families with two Jewish parents, the further away one moves from the generation of Jews “who brought over their Jewishness” from Europe, the bigger the gap in their Jewish knowledge.

In a further effort to reach out to the parents of early childhood students, this year, for the first time, Temple Sinai is making its parenting workshop available to this group. The synagogue already offers parenting workshops for the families of older students.

Inspired by the book “Blessings of a Skinned Knee” by Wendy Mogel, said Kaplan, she and Tannenbaum will put together a parenting program “based on Jewish values.” Joining them in leading the group will be congregant Richard Gallagher, a psychologist who heads the parenting program at the NYU Child Study Center.

While designed for parents in the early childhood center, “it will be open to anyone who is a religious-school parent with a child in elementary school,” said Kaplan, pointing out that unlike the new holiday workshops, the parenting program will charge a fee.

“Parents are looking for educational programs suited to their needs,” said Tannenbaum. “They need more support and we will offer it through this program.”

Kaplan pointed out that parents often come to her and Tannenbaum for guidance.

“We’re the first line of defense,” she said. “Parents question how, when they have so much, they can say no to their children. It’s important to work on values.”

“Parenting is a real challenge,” said Tannenbaum. “It’s bar mitzvah versus soccer games. Parents need language and support. They want to be more grounded.”

If parenting programs are offered to them when their children are young, “they won’t have to struggle later on,” she said. “They’ll be much more secure as parents.”

Among the topics the workshop will discuss is “downtime from all these gadgets,” said Kaplan, noting that many parents spend less time today talking to their children than they do talking on their cell phones.

“They don’t realize that they’re not communicating,” she said.

The group will also talk about Shabbat and the value of sharing a Shabbat dinner.

“We want to give tools to parents,” said Tannenbaum, noting that parents will receive transliterations of blessings and will be talked through the choreography of home Shabbat observance — for example, “covering your eyes and what to do with your hands” after lighting candles.

Tannenbaum said she has heard parents say they don’t go to services because they don’t know what to do there. The new programs, she said, “will try to create a comfort level for parents” that may help address this problem.

For further information, call the Temple Sinai religious school office, (201) 568-3075.


Alan Brill explores ‘post-tolerance manifesto for a post-9/11 world in new book

Alan Brill argues in his new book that Jews need to learn more about their own faith while encountering others.

Teaneck resident Alan Brill’s new book, “Judaism and Other Religions: Models of Understanding” (Palgrave MacMillan), is a sort of post-tolerance manifesto for a post 9/11 world.

The humanistic approach to tolerance in today’s Western world treats “the other” as secular without requiring any understanding of the other’s religion, argues Brill, an Orthodox rabbi, interfaith activist, and Cooperman/Ross endowed professor in honor of Sister Rose Thering at Seton Hall University in East Orange.

Jews involved in interfaith dialogue since the 1970s have mostly come from the 1960s “universal, we’re-all-one perspective” that emphasized openness over exclusivism, says Brill. He felt that today’s realities called for a look at how classical Jewish sources could bring an old/new dimension to the discussion.


“As religion has reasserted itself all over the globe post-9/11, the secular approach doesn’t work,” asserts Brill, 49. “A ‘tolerant’ position doesn’t actually encourage diversity and difference but rather a hidden sense of ‘why can’t we all be the same?’ You have to come to the table with a notion of what your own faith can bring, with a commitment to your own faith, not as a general universalist but with something to say.”

For Jews, that “something to say” is found in our traditional texts, says Brill.

Over the course of several years, he collected and examined biblical, rabbinic, medieval, and early modernist Jewish sources to extrapolate a Jewish theology of other religions.

“I am more than surprised at frequent interfaith encounters where the Catholic speaks from the official Church teachings, the Muslim speaks from traditional teachings, and the Jewish representative addresses the assembled from the general perspective of comparative religion, politics, or anthropology,” writes Brill, who was one of a few Jewish scholars invited to an interfaith conference convened by Saudi Arabian King Abdullah in Madrid two years ago. “There need to be Jewish theologies of other religions.”

This is not merely an academic exercise, Brill asserts. “What we say on interfaith topics does matter; it does lead to greater understanding, and it leads to practical change. If you can’t figure out what to say about Christians from a Jewish point of view it will affect how you relate to them. And for pulpit rabbis, how they think about or talk about other religions really affects their congregants.”

The questions he attempts to answer for readers are: If God is one, then what is the value of the other religions? Does God care only about one small people or does His plan include the wider world? How does one theologically account for the differences between religions? How do Jews think about other religions? How do we balance our multi-faith world with the Jewish texts?

“Most Jews are not remotely aware of the texts in this volume,” he writes, adding that his book “reflects an Orthodox training and erudition, but it is not limited to Orthodox thinkers.” This is not to say that his sources are obscure, but that their writings on this particular issue never got much notice. “People know these sources, but they just pass over passages like the one where [10th-century Baghdad scholar] Saadya Gaon discusses the Brahmins.”

With its hefty list price of $85, the book is currently being acquired by libraries and universities around the world —including some in China, India, and Australia. Next year, it will come out in paperback for a wider audience, defined by Brill as “anybody interested in the Jewish attitudes toward other religions, from clergy to people who want to make Jewish sense of the stories they read in the papers.” To make it accessible to gentiles involved in interfaith encounter, the book’s Jewish concepts are all explained in clear terms.

Brill is teaching in Seton Hall’s graduate department of Jewish-Christian Studies on Jewish ethics and the land of Israel in the three faiths. He is lining up a fall schedule of speaking engagements about the book, and putting the finishing touches on a second volume, to be titled “Judaism and World Religions.”

“Judaism does have something to say about other religions. That’s the big point,” he says. “It goes in many directions and has many Jewish voices.”


Moving forward

Published: 15 October 2010

Non-Jews as saviors of Judaism

Published: 05 November 2010
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