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Posts Tagged ‘Shavei Israel’

Ancient Chinese Jewish Community to Hold First Traditional Seder in China

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

Kaifeng, China, April 7 – Nearly 100 members of the ancient Jewish community of Kaifeng, China, are expected to attend a first-of-its-kind traditional Passover Seder that will take place next Monday, April 14, at the start of the holiday in Kaifeng. The Seder, which is being sponsored by the Jerusalem-based Shavei Israel organization, will be conducted for the first time by 28-year-old Tzuri (Heng) Shi, who made Aliyah from Kaifeng a few years ago with the help of Shavei Israel and completed his formal return to Judaism last year.

As part of the preparation for the upcoming Seder, Tzuri was sent to Kaifeng by the Shavei Israel organization with all of the traditional Passover items including: Kosher Matzah packages from Israel, Kosher for Passover wine, Passover Haggadahs, which were prepared especially in Hebrew and Chinese, Kosher for Passover cakes, traditional red horseradish, and traditional Charoset.

“We are proud and excited to organize this historic event,” said Shavei Israel Chairman and Founder Michael Freund. “Kaifeng’s Jewish descendants are a living link between China and the Jewish people, and it is very moving to see the remnants of this community returning to their Jewish roots as they prepare for Passover,” he added.

Scholars believe the first Jews settled in Kaifeng, which was one of China’s imperial capitals, during the 8th or 9th Century. They are said to have been Sephardic Jewish merchants from Persia or Iraq who made their way eastward along the Silk Route and established themselves in the city with the blessing of the Chinese emperor.

In 1163, Kaifeng’s Jews built a large and beautiful synagogue, which was subsequently renovated and rebuilt on numerous occasions throughout the centuries. At its peak, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the Kaifeng Jewish community may have numbered as many as 5,000 people. But widespread intermarriage and assimilation, as well as the death of the community’s last rabbi, brought about its demise by the middle of the 19th century.

Nevertheless, many of the families sought to preserve their Jewish identity and pass it down to their descendants, who continued to observe various Jewish customs. Currently, there are estimated to be approximately 1,000 Jewish descendants in Kaifeng.

“In recent years, many members of the community have begun to explore their heritage – thanks in part to the Internet, which opened up new worlds for them and provided access to information about Judaism and Israel that was previously inaccessible to them,” Freund noted.

Shavei Israel is a non-profit organization founded by Michael Freund, who immigrated to Israel from the United States, with the aim of strengthening the ties between the Jewish people, the State of Israel and the descendants of Jews around the world. The organization is currently active in nine countries and provides assistance to a variety of different communities such as the Bnei Menashe of India, the Bnei Anousim (referred to as the derogatory “Marranos” by historians) in Spain, Portugal and South America, the Subbotnik Jews of Russia, the Jewish community of Kaifeng in China, descendants of Jews living in Poland, and others.

Watch the video of the Kaifeng community preparing for Pesach, being led in v’hi sh’amda by Ram, a chazan from the Kaifeng Jewish community.

Young, Hidden Polish Jews Discover Heritage in Israel

Tuesday, August 27th, 2013

Shavei Israel, an Israeli organization dedicated to discovering hidden Jewish communities and lost Jews, recently brought 16 Polish Jews to Israel to rediscover their Jewish identity. Michael Freund, chairman of Shavei Israel, explained, “In Poland, in most people’s eyes, to be Polish means Catholic. In Poland, the sense of identity is very much linked to religion, so when a person discovers he is Jewish or has Jewish ancestry, it comes as a shock to people. They become outsiders. It can be traumatic.”

During the Holocaust, 90 percent of Polish Jewry was murdered, decimating the 3 to 3.5 million Jews that lived in Poland on the eve of the Nazi invasion, leaving only 350,000 alive by war’s end. While most surviving Jews left Poland after a brief return to search for relatives, some remained. Due to communist rule and memories of the Holocaust, many hid their Jewish identity. Today, there are many communities with “hidden Jews,” who are disconnected from their Jewish roots and ancestry.

“There are people who suspect they might have Jewish roots and want to know yet don’t change their live styles. Others could return to Judaism or pursue a secular journey to learn about Jewish culture. We are talking about a human phenomenon, so different people react different,” Freund explained. “Some of them become religious Jews and do a conversion, while others are struggling with their new identity and are trying to figure out what to make of it and how it should impact their life. One thing that unites them is that they all want to learn more about their heritage and want to see the land of their ancestors.”

Some hidden Jews grew up as Catholic, the children of Jews who converted while hiding in Catholic orphanages. Others were raised without religion playing any role in their lives. According to Freund, “One young man [in this group of 16] who began to get interested in his family genealogy and then at the same time took a DNA test discovered that he has Jewish background. That combined with documents he found convinced him he has Jewish ancestry. He was even able to locate distant cousins in the US that are Jewish. This prompted him to study more about Judaism. He converted and became religiously observant.”

Most of the 16 Jews in this group, however, are at an earlier stage in their journey. “In many other cases, they have a grandparent who revealed it to them or are people who don’t know for sure, since their family will not discuss it with them,” said Freund.  Their suspicion grew out of their lack or church attendance or extended family. “They have relatives who refuse [to speak about it] and that fuels their speculation even more.”

Freund believes that roots are powerful. “When we walk the streets of Jerusalem, the trees are uneven and the roots have spread out and lifted the rocks up. If that is true of a tree, how much more so of a human being! Sometimes they burst upwards to show they are still there. More people through out Poland are discovering and embracing their Jewish roots. They are trying to go home.”

Visit United with Israel.

64-Year-Old Polish Jew Celebrates Bar Mitzvah at the Kotel

Thursday, May 30th, 2013

Mariusz Robert Aoflko, a 64-year old Jewish attorney from Krakow who grew up thinking he was a Polish Catholic, celebrated his Bar Mitzvah on Wednesday, May 30, at the Kotel, with friends and other “hidden Jews” from Poland.

Mariusz spent his entire life as a Catholic. However, 13 years ago, right before his mother passed away, she told him something that turned his whole world upside down: he is a Jew, and a Kohen.

This week, Mariusz (who now goes by the name of Moshe) is visiting Israel for the first time and this morning celebrated his Bar Mitzvah at the Kotel, 13 years after the secret, which he calls “his rebirth,” was revealed.

It turns out that both of Mariusz’s parents were born to Jewish families who perished in Auschwitz. After the war, the fear of being Jewish in Poland led his parents to hide their religion and to live as Polish Catholics.

After learning his true identity, Mariusz was in complete shock, but slowly, over the years, he decided he wanted to live a Jewish life. He contacted Shavei Israel’s emissary in Krakow, Rabbi Boaz Pash, and became involved with the Jewish community in Krakow.

Last month, he met Michael Freund, founder and chairman of Shavei Israel, at the entrance of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp, and told him his story. “I was deeply moved,” Freund said, adding, “I told him that since 13 years have passed since he found out he was a Jew, it is an appropriate time for him to have a Bar Mitzvah.” Freund then offered to arrange the event at the Kotel, all paid for by the organization.

“By embarking on this journey into my heritage, step by step, it all starts to become clear to me,” said Mariusz. “I am not doing this to prove anything to anyone. All I ask is to embrace the truth about my family and regain the lost identity that was hidden from me for decades.”

Today, there are approximately 4,000 Jews living in Poland, but experts suggest there may be tens of thousands of other Jews who to this day are either hiding their identities or simply unaware of their family heritage. In recent years, a growing number of such people, popularly known as the “Hidden Jews of Poland,” have begun to return to Judaism and to the Jewish people.

Shavei Israel is a non-profit organization founded by Michael Freund, who immigrated to Israel from the United States, with the aim of strengthening the ties between the Jewish people, the State of Israel and the descendants of Jews around the world. The organization is currently active in nine countries and provides assistance to a variety of different communities such as the Bnei Menashe of India, the Bnei Anousim in Spain, Portugal and South America, the Subbotnik Jews of Russia, and the Jewish community of Kaifeng in China.

Shavei Israel currently has two full-time emissaries in Poland, located in Krakow and Katowice.

25 Poles Who Discovered They Are Jewish to Study In Israel

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2012

25 young Polish Jews, many of whom have only recently discovered their Jewish roots, arrived in Israel on Monday for a special seminar organized by Shavei Israel, an organization that aims to strengthen the connection between descendants of Jews and the State of Israel & the Jewish people. The participants, between the ages of 18-35, most of whom were raised Catholic, came from cities like Krakow, Katowice, Warsaw, Przemysl and Gdansk. For many it marks their first time visiting Israel.

“There is a growing thirst among young Poles with Jewish roots to learn more about their Jewish religious and cultural heritage,” said Shavei Israel Chairman Michael Freund. “This awakening would have been unthinkable just 25 or 30 years ago, but since the downfall of Communism, an increasing number of Poles have sought to reclaim and affirm their Jewish identity. We owe it to them to assist them in any way that we can.”

Freund added that, “with the start of the new Jewish year just a few weeks away, it is fitting that these young Poles have come to Israel to rekindle their bond with the Jewish people.”

The program, run by Polish-speaking rabbis and educators, is designed to assist the young Poles in discovering more about their Jewish roots and learning more about ancient and modern-day Israel. Among the topics that will be covered are the laws of Shabbat; the upcoming holidays of Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Sukkot; and “Keeping kosher in a non-kosher world.” Participants will also study the weekly Torah portion.

The visitors will meet with the Polish Ambassador to Israel, and an spend a day studying at a local yeshiva.

About 4,000 Jews live in Poland today, but some suggest there may be tens of thousands of other Jews in Poland who to this day are either hiding their identities or are simply unaware of their family heritage. In recent years, a growing number of such people, popularly known as the “Hidden Jews of Poland”, have begun to return to Judaism and to the Jewish people.

Shavei Israel currently has two full-time emissaries in Poland located in Krakow and Katowice.

40 of Poland’s ‘Hidden Jews’ to Complete Daf Yomi in Lublin

Monday, July 30th, 2012

More than 40 ‘Hidden Jews’ from Poland will participate in an unprecedented seminar organized by Shavei Israel on July 30 through August 2 in Lublin, Poland, dedicated entirely to the study of Talmud.

The gathering will be held at the Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva and will coincide with the completion of the Daf Yomi daily cycle of Talmud study which was launched by the yeshiva’s founder more than 80 years ago. The seminar aims to strengthen the local Polish Jewish community while also reaching out to the ‘Hidden Jews’ throughout the area, many of whom are looking to reconnect with the Jewish people.

“The symbolism of this seminar and its location are especially poignant,” said Shavei Israel Chairman Michael Freund, adding that “the Germans and their collaborators sought to snuff out Jewish life and learning. But nearly seven decades after the Holocaust, Jews are once again studying the Talmud at Yeshiva Chachmei Lublin.”

Freund also noted that “since the fall of the Iron Curtain, an increasing number of young Poles have begun rediscovering their Jewish roots and expressing a desire to draw closer to Israel and the Jewish people. It is incumbent upon us to reach out to them and help them to do so.”

The Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva was founded in 1930 by the late Rabbi Meir Shapiro, who introduced the revolutionary idea of ‘Daf Yomi’ to the Jewish world. The practice is a daily regimen of study covering the entire Babylonian Talmud, completed one day at a time in a cycle of seven and a half years, a practice that has had resounding success and which continues today.

A group of Jews from abroad who have taken part in the Daf Yomi will be completing the cycle at the same time as the Shavei Israel seminar, which is being led by Rabbi Boaz Pash, Shavei Israel’s emissary to Krakow who serves as the city’s Chief Rabbi. The ‘Hidden Jews’ in participation will take part in the final days of study along with them and then will join them in celebrating this milestone.

When the Nazis took Lublin in 1939, they closed the Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva, stripped the interior and burned the Yeshiva’s library in the town square. The Nazis then used the building for the regional headquarters of the German Military Police. In 2003, the building was returned to the Jewish community and was reopened in February 2007.

The Jewish community of Lublin dates back to 1316, when Jews first settled at the outskirts of the city. By the mid-16th century, Jewish life in Lublin had begun to flourish, and an autonomous Jewish zone existed in the district. Jews were given land to build their own institutions and a cemetery, and a Hebrew printing press was established in 1547.

The city was home to rabbinical giants such as Rabbi Shalom Shachna, who established a yeshiva in Lublin where luminaries such as Rabbi Moses Isserles (the Rama) studied. In the 18th century, Lublin became a center for Hasidism, and leading rabbis such as the renowned Seer of Lublin left their mark on Jewish life.

During the Holocaust, Lublin was transformed into a center of mass extermination of Jews. The Nazis captured Lublin in 1939 at a time when about 30,000 Jews lived there. By 1941, the Jewish population had reached about 45,000.

Today, several dozen Jews are officially registered as members of the Lublin Jewish community, but hundreds of‘Hidden Jews’ reside in the area. Recently, a growing number have begun to reclaim their roots.

The “Hidden Jews” are a phenomenon that has gained in strength in Poland in recent years, with many Jews slowly returning to Judaism and the Jewish people. Many of these Jews lost all contact with Judaism due to the extreme anti-Semitism they encountered after the Holocaust, and some of them even converted to Christianity. Others concealed their Judaism from the Communist authorities and now feel free to assume their true identity.

Another phenomenon are Jews who were adopted by Catholic families and institutions during the Holocaust. They were told nothing of their Jewish identity, and only in recent years have gradually begun to discover it. Today, around 4,000 Jews are registered as living in Poland, but according to various estimates, there are tens of thousands of others who have concealed their true identity, or are simply unaware of it.

Bring The Bnei Menashe Home To Israel

Wednesday, January 19th, 2011

Several time zones away, in the farthest reaches of northeastern India, live thousands of men and women longing to rejoin the Jewish people.
 
Scattered throughout the Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur, they follow Jewish law, observe the Sabbath and festivals, and even pray in Hebrew, turning their faces, and dreams, toward Zion.
 
Known as the Bnei Menashe, they trace their ancestry back to the tribe of Manasseh, one of the Ten Lost Tribes that were exiled from the Land of Israel by the Assyrian empire more than 2,700 years ago.
 
Despite centuries of wandering, the Bnei Menashe clung to their Jewish heritage and preserved their traditions. They never forgot who they were or where they came from, or to where they dreamed of one day returning.
 
In 2005, the Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, Shlomo Amar, formally recognized the Bnei Menashe as “descendants of Israel” and encouraged their return to Israel and the Jewish people.
 
Over the past decade, more than 1,700 members of the community have made aliyah to Israel thanks to Shavei Israel, the organization I chair.
 
All have undergone formal conversion by the Chief Rabbinate to remove any doubts regarding their personal status and have been granted Israeli citizenship.
 
But another 7,232 remain in India, anxiously awaiting their chance to make aliyah. The time has come to put an end to their waiting.
 
Over the past year, I have been intensively lobbying Israel’s government on behalf of the Bnei Menashe, and I am optimistic that a breakthrough is near.
 
Both the chief rabbi and Interior Minister Eli Yishai have expressed their support for bringing the remaining members of the community to Israel. All that is needed now is for the Israeli government to take the courageous and historic decision to reunite this lost tribe with our people.
 
The Bnei Menashe will be loyal citizens and good Jews. They are kind and soft-spoken, with strong family values and a deep abiding faith in the Torah. Nearly all are religiously observant, with a profound and passionate commitment to Zionism.
 
Only four percent of Bnei Menashe immigrants are reliant on social welfare benefits, which is less than half the percentage of veteran Israelis. They are hard-working and earnest people, and the arrival of thousands of them will be a true blessing for the Jewish state.
 
Several members of the community in Israel have received rabbinical ordination and now work in outreach, while another is a certified religious scribe whose quill has produced beautiful Scrolls of Esther.
 
Dozens of others have served in elite combat units, risking their lives in defense of the country.
 
Simply put, they strengthen us both quantitatively and qualitatively, demographically and spiritually.
 
Moreover, the Bnei Menashe are part of the extended Jewish family, and we owe it to them and their ancestors, as well as to ourselves, to bring them home.
 
According to their tradition, after their forefathers were expelled from the Land of Israel, the Bnei Menashe wandered eastward toward China before settling in what is now northeastern India, where they continued to practice biblical Judaism. This included observing the Sabbath and the laws of family purity, circumcision on the eighth day after birth, levirate marriage and sacrificial rites tantalizingly close to those of ancient Israel.
 
This would not be the first time a lost tribe has been found. Take, for example, the Ethiopian Jews, whose aliyah to Israel was nothing less than a modern-day miracle. When the Chief Rabbinate ruled in 1973 that they were Jews, the decision was based in part on the belief that the Ethiopians were descendants of the lost Israelite tribe of Dan.
 
Since that historic ruling, tens of thousands of Ethiopians have come to Israel, bolstering the country and adding some much-needed demographic reinforcements to its Jewish population. There is no reason for the Bnei Menashe to be treated any differently.
 
Recently, the Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs issued a historic decision calling on the Israeli government to bring home the Bnei Menashe remaining in India.
 
I testified before the committee, and was delighted when its chairman, MK Danny Danon, declared that “it is the Israeli government’s duty and responsibility to bring the rest of the Bnei Menashe home as soon as possible.”
 
No matter how one looks at it, the story of the Bnei Menashe is testimony to the power of Jewish memory, to that unquenchable pintele Yid (Jewish spark) that dwells deep in the heart of each and every Jew.
 
Israel, of course, faces many challenges, and the government is busy grappling with various diplomatic, political and security issues.
 

But the time has come to bring this 2,700 year-long saga of dispersion to an end.  The time has come to bring Manasseh’s children home. The time has come to bring the Bnei Menashe to Israel.

 

 

Michael Freund is chairman of Shavei Israel (www.shavei.org), a Jerusalem-based organization that reaches out and assists “lost Jews” seeking to return to the Jewish people. His Jewish Press-exclusive column appears the third week of each month.

The Eternity Of Israel

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

            Gradually but energetically, the circle of worshipers made its way around the interior of Krakow’s medieval Rema synagogue, their voices rising ever more forcefully in song and prayer.

 

            Stirred on by the inspiring Sabbath melodies, they joined hands and thrust their feet forward in unison, filling the space with a dynamic, yet gentle, passion.

 

            “Merciful Father, draw Your servant closer to Your will,” they sang, as the words of the 16th-century Yedid Nefesh hymn cascaded throughout the room. “Illuminate the world with Your glory, that we may rejoice,” they chanted.

 

            Just as Jews have been doing for centuries, the celebrants welcomed the figurative Sabbath bride with a mixture of pomp and elation.

 

            But this was no ordinary Friday night service.

 

            Over 70 years ago, this city had been captured by the Nazis, who mercilessly ransacked it and hunted down local Jews with the aim of erasing the name of Israel from under the heavens.

 

            But recently, that name was alive and well in the Rema synagogue’s sanctuary, as some 150 “hidden Jews” from across Poland gathered to reclaim the precious heritage that is rightfully theirs.

 

            They were in Krakow to attend a special seminar convened by Shavei Israel, the organization I chair, to enable them to reconnect with their roots.

 

            Indeed, something special is taking place in Poland these days. Against all odds, a nascent revival is underway, as increasing numbers of Poles are rediscovering their Jewish roots and looking for ways to rejoin our people.

 

            Some were raised as Catholics, only to learn later in life that their biological parents or grandparents were Jews. Others knew they were Jewish, but chose to hide their identity because of their families’ experiences under Nazism and Communism.

 

            There is Jacek, a young man in his early 20s from the city of Wroclaw, who first learned he was Jewish just a few years ago.

 

            One evening, while watching a television program about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict together with his mother, she offhandedly said to him, “now you know why my nose is so large.”

 

            The news struck him like a thunderbolt, particularly since he knew that his maternal great-grandfather had been a German who had served in the Wehrmacht during World War II. Nonetheless, his great-grandfather had married a Jewess, meaning that Jacek’s grandmother, mother – and, yes, Jacek too, – are all Jewish according to Jewish law.

 

            He now proudly wears a large Star of David around his neck and attends synagogue regularly.

 

            Then there is Esther, a young woman from Krakow, who only learned of her family’s Jewishness last summer, when her maternal grandmother lay on her deathbed and told her the shocking news.

 

            With the fall of the Iron Curtain, and Poland’s embrace of democracy, people feel freer to delve into their past, and to express themselves as Jews.

            And so, after two or even three generations in which untold numbers of Polish Jews sought to hide their identity, their grandchildren and great-grandchildren have now started to come back.

 

            Can anyone possibly doubt the eternity of Israel?

 

            As the Friday night service in the Rema synagogue continued, I thought of how, just an hour away, to the west of Krakow, stands the death camp of Auschwitz. It was there that part of my family, along with millions of other holy Jews, were so cruelly murdered by the Germans and their henchmen. And my heart began to sink.

 

            But then I looked around me and watched in awe as the reawakened remnants of Polish Jewry recited an impassioned version of the Lecha Dodi prayer.

 

            “Wake up! Wake up! For your light has come,” they intoned, “awake, awake and utter a song, for the glory of the Lord is upon you.”

 

            The “hidden Jews” of Poland are truly awakening, and it is incumbent upon us to help them. We must reach out to them and encourage them, and restore them to our people.

 

            In Ezekiel, Chapter 37, God promised to bring life to the dry bones of His people Israel, saying: “I will open your graves and bring you up from them and I will bring you back to the land of Israel . I will put my spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land.”

 

            Seven decades after the Holocaust, we are privileged to be witnessing the fulfillment of this verse. These bones are coming to life once again, as the Jewish spirit within burns ever brighter.

 

            Our task now is to open the door and welcome them back as they finally make the long journey home.

 

            Michael Freund, whose Jewish Press-exclusive column ordinarily appears the third week of each month (this month being an obvious exception), served as deputy director of Communications & Policy Planning in the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office under Benjamin Netanyahu from 1996 to 1999. He is founder and chairman of Shavei Israel (www.shavei.org), which reaches out and assists “lost Jews” seeking to return to the Jewish people. 

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/columns/the-eternity-of-israel/2010/04/21/

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