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1 January, 1900


     Jewish Diaspora in China is a unique experience for world Jewry as China is the only country in the Far East, which has had Jews living in its society for over 1,000 years. There is a significant distinction between Jews in pre-modern (before 1840) China and those in Modern China (since 1840). Those who came before modern times became part of Chinese society without distinct features but those who came since modern times remained as aliens.


     The Tang Dynasty (618–907) is the period when we begin to have documentary evidence to prove the presence of Jews in China. The earliest evidence is from the beginning of the eighth century: a business letter dating from 718 C.E., written in the Judeo-Persian language, and found in Dandan Uiliq, an important post along the Silk Road in Northwest China. The text is thirty-seven lines in length and was written on paper, a product then manufactured only in China. From this fragment, we learn that a Persian-speaking Jew was trading commodities. He wrote to a fellow Jew who was obviously also a trader and asked his help in disposing of some sheep of inferior stock that he had the misfortune to own.

     Another bit of evidence proving there were Jews in China around this time is a page of Hebrew penitential prayers from a massive trove of documents in the Cave of the Thousand Buddhas of Dunhuang. It consists of passages from the Psalms and the Prophets and also dates back to the eighth century.

     The earliest historical references to Jews in China are by Arab geographers and travelers of the ninth and tenth centuries. Abu-Zaid, a well-known Arab geographer and traveler in medieval times, described the massacre in 877 (or 878) of the foreign residents of the city of Khanfu conducted by the Chinese rebel Banshu. Among those killed he specifically mentions Jews.

     From 1280 on, a few Chinese sources also mention the Jewish presence in China. For instance, The Statutes of the Yuan and Official History of the Yuan mentions Jews several times. Westerners who were in China in this period also repeatedly mention Jews. For example, Marco Polo says there were Jews in Beijing in 1286; Olschki writes of an organized Jewish community that was granted official recognition; the Franciscan John of Monte Corvino notes that there were Jews in China around 1300; Andrew of Perugia mentioned Jews in China in 1326; Jean de Marignolli asserts that he had disputes with Jews in Khanbaliq, China, in 1342; and the Arab Ibn-Battuta mentions a “Jews’ Gate” in Hangzhou in 1346.

     Clearly, quite a few Jews came to China for commercial and business purposes. They came from a variety of places and by whatever routes seemed most expedient. They traveled to China by land and by sea. Some went back and forth. Others stayed and eventually settled down there. Inevitably, some fair-size Jewish communities appeared in the cities where they had business and resided. Other Jews were brought to China as captives taken by the Mongols during their march of conquest through Central Asia and Eastern Europe in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. No doubt many Jewish communities in China were established across the country. However, not all left evidence as proof of their existence. The following are those known to us today.   


     Surely, the most documented Jewish community in China is the Kaifeng Jews. According to their own document, an inscription they erected in their synagogue compound in 1489, they came to China in the Song dynasty (960-1279). It is almost unanimously agreed by scholars and historians that they came to Kaifeng, the capital city of the Song, between 960 and 1126 and founded a community there. (See “Jews of Kaifeng, China” in this volume.)


     Hangzhou is located in East China and became prominent when the Sui dynasty (581–618) made it the southern terminus of the Grand Canal, which runs north to Beijing, joining several major rivers to provide China with an extensive inland waterway system. After 1126, Hangzhou served as the capital for the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279). It has always been known as an important trade and handicrafts center. Its direct access to major sea routes made it convenient for merchants and traders.

     Although the arrival of the first settlers cannot be precisely dated, it would not be unreasonable to assume the presence of a Jewish community as early as the twelfth century, when the Northern Song was defeated by the Tartars and forced to move its capital from Kaifeng to Hangzhou. Chinese documents show that a large part of Kaifeng’s populace moved with the royal court. Quite likely some of Kaifeng’s Jews were among them. Ai Tien, the Jew from Kaifeng who met Matteo Ricci in Beijing in 1605, told him that many Jews had once lived in Hangzhou, forming a large Jewish community with a synagogue of its own.

     An Arab traveler, Ibn Battuta incidentally attests the existence of the Hangzhou Jewish community, in the fourteenth century, when he visited the city in 1346. When he and his companions entered Hangzhou, they immediately became aware of a Jewish presence there because of the name of the gate, the “Jews Gate,” through which they passed. However, for some reason, the Jewish community of Hangzhou ceased to exist sometime before the seventeenth century.


     Ningbo in Zhejiang Province has been a seaport in East China for many centuries. Before modern times, it was the most important port connecting that part of China to Southeast Asia and beyond. It was one of the five treaty ports opened to foreign trade in 1842. The Jewish presence in the city began early. The Ningbo Jews established ties with Kaifeng Jewry by the fifteenth century if not before. In 1461 the Jews in Kaifeng obtained two Torah scrolls from Ningbo. The 1489 inscription tells the story: ”When the synagogue was rebuilt, Shi Bin, Li Rong, and Gao Jian, and Zhang Xuan went to Ningbo and brought back a scroll of the Scriptures. Zhao Ying of Ningbo brought another scroll to Kaifeng and respectfully presented it to our temple.”

     From this it may be deduced that the Jews of Ningbo were observant adherents of their religion. We may further assume that there was a vibrant Jewish community in the city if Torah scrolls were available. The fact that two scrolls of the law were obtained from Ningbo may also indicate the presence of a fairly large Jewish community in the city at that time.

     Pan Guangdan, a Chinese historian, believes that the Jews in Ningbo probably arrived very early because it is a river port quite near the sea. The fact that they had many Torah scrolls indicates that the Jews and Judaism of Ningbo probably had a history no shorter than their Kaifeng counterparts, plus a considerable prestige.

     The existence of the Ningbo Jewish community gave much support, at least spiritually, to the Kaifeng Jewish community. The Torah scrolls it sent certainly provided means for the Kaifeng Jews to maintain their ritual and education.


     Yangzhou was originally a seaport. In the seventh to ninth centuries, as the course of the Yangtze River changed, and its delta extended further into the ocean, Yangzhou became a river port. Because of its location on the Grand Canal, a major inland transportation route, Yangzhou became an important hub from which one could travel south to Fujian and Canton and north to Kaifeng. There was also a very large Muslim community in the city. According to the Fujian Chronicles, Western Region Notes, the Islamic religion was transmitted to Yangzhou thirteen centuries ago. Today, the Muslim population of the city numbers about four thousand.

     Under the circumstances, it is reasonable to assume that there was also a Jewish community in Yangzhou. The 1512 inscription describes the connection between Kaifeng Jewry and the Yangzhou Jews, for it states that An, Li, and Gao of Kaifeng, and Jin Pu of Yangzhou “contributed a scroll of the Torah and constructed a second gateway of the synagogue.” In fact, the 1512 inscription was written by Zhu Tang, who was a resident of Yangzhou. Ai Tien, who met Ricci in Beijing, was appointed to a post as school supervisor in Paoying District of Yangzhou for 1605–1607 according to the Yangzhou Gazetteers.


     Ningxia is situated in Northwest China and is an important post city in that region. It too had Jewish residents and a historical connection with the Kaifeng Jewish community. Both the 1489 and 1512 inscriptions testify to their existence and their connection with Kaifeng Jewry. The 1489 inscription tells how Jin Xuan, a native of Ningxia, contributed an altar, a bronze censer, vases, and candlesticks to the Kaifeng synagogue when it was rebuilt after a flood. His younger brother, Jin Ying, contributed to the funds used to purchase land for the synagogue and pay for inscribing and erecting the 1489 stele. The 1512 inscription states that Jin Run built the kiosk in which it was housed. All three Jins were from Ningxia. The 1489 inscription also mentions that one of the ancestors of Jin Xuan and Jin Ying had been court president of state banquets, and that their great-uncle had been a high military officer. Apparently, the Jin family had a long history in that city and kept close ties with Jews in Kaifeng. Ningxia served as a way station on the Silk Road. . Merchants or traders who entered China from Central Asia via the Silk Road had to pass through it. This makes the existence of Jews in the city very likely.

     Except for the Kaifeng Jewish community, all other communities leave behind very little materials for us to reconstruct their life and history today and disappear (most likely are totally assimilated into Chinese society) before the 17th century. The Kaifeng Jewish community survived until the mid-19th century, when the last rabbi of the community died without a successor. The synagogue was unattended and diminished gradually, and the community virtually ceased to exist, although individual Jewish descendants still live in Kaifeng today.


     The history of Jewish Diaspora in modern China has a much clearer beginning, starting in the second half of the 19thcentury when China was forced to open her doors to Western powers. Jews came in several waves. First came Sephardic Jews, originally form Baghdad and Bombay, to look for business opportunities in newly-opened Chinese cities such as Shanghai and Hong Kong in the second half of the 19th century. By the beginning of the 20th century they had built up solid Jewish communities in those cities. The second wave was the arrival of Ashkenazi Jews from Russia and other East European countries. Most of them first arrived in Harbin and contiguous zones in Northeast China. Later many of them moved to southern regions of China. Although a few came in search of better economic opportunities, the majority was either fleeing from pogroms or revolutions in Russia in the early 20th century. The third wave was the arrival of European Jewish refugees. During 1937-1940 about 20,000 European Jewish refugees swarmed into Shanghai, which became a refuge for thousands of Jews fleeing from countries under Nazi control. The last wave was the arrival of some 1,000 Jews from Poland and other Eastern European countries in the early 1940s. In general, in the period of 1845-1945 more than 40,000 Jews came to China for business development or for a safe haven.

The Jewish Communities in Shanghai

The Sephardi Jewish Community

     Sephardi Jews were the forerunners of Jewish Diaspora in Modern China. They came and settled in the International Settlement of Shanghai via India shortly after the Opium War was over. The Treat of Nanjing, signed in August 1842, opened Shanghai and four other Chinese port cities to British residence and trade, free from interference by the Chinese government. Economic opportunity was the main attraction of Shanghai for those Jews. The community is closely bound with the Sassoon family, which had built a dynasty in India in the first half of the 19th century, though their origin was from Baghdad. David Sassoon together with his eight sons built up an extensive business in Shanghai. The Shanghai Sephardi had British passports that could ensure that they could travel freely and enjoyed extraterritorial rights because of the effective and universal protection afforded by the British. They were shopkeepers, importers and exporters, retailers, property and estate agents, and stockbrokers. With economic development of the city, the size of the community grew steadily. By 1895, there were about 175 Baghdadi Jews in the foreign enclave in Shanghai. 

     The Sassoons were orthodox Jews and conducted their lives according to strict Jewish laws and ensured the preservation of the traditions of the Baghdadi Jews in life. Until the mid-1870s, they provided their staff with living accommodation and facilities for the observance of Judaism. No work or business was conducted on Sabbath and festivals. Religious services were organized in accordance with Baghdadi customs. Due to their hard work and wisdom, the Sephardim Jewish Community of Shanghai became the most wealthy and influential Jewish community in Shanghai though their members probably never exceeding 800. Their contribution to the development of modern Shanghai can be felt even today.

Ashkenazi Jewish Community

     The Ashkenazi Jewish community in Shanghai was formed in the beginning of the 20th century when Russian Jews started to arrive in the city in a relative large number. Fleeing pogroms and revolutions in Russia, they traveled via Siberia first to cities in Northeast China, such as Harbin, Dalian, or Tianjin. In the early 1930s their number in Shanghai already surpassed 5,000. The Shanghai Ashkenazi Jewish Communal Association was established in June 1931 with a chairman and a nine-member executive committee. It was an essentially secular Jewish community with strong Zionist and nationalist leanings.

     The Community was best organized and most active among all Jewish communities in Shanghai as far as the communal life was concerned. Charitable societies such as relief society, shelter house, provided aid to the needy and indigent. An educational aid society assisted young people in the Shanghai Jewish School with tuition. A sacred burying society maintained a cemetery and provided free burials for the indigent. Clinics and a hospital provided free dispensary to the poor. The Jewish Club, which was founded in the French concession in 1931, was the center of cultural, political, and social activities. It provided various activities such as concerts, lectures, and theatrical performances.

The Community of Central European Jews

     From 1938 on, some 20,000 Jewish refugees from Central Europe, chiefly from Germany and Austria, escaped to Shanghai, the only place in the world that required no documents such as visas, health certificates, and financial statements. Among them were Michael Blumenthal, who later became US Secretary of the Treasury in the Carter Administration, and Shaul Eisenberg, who founded and ran the Eisenberg Group of Companies in Israel.

     Refugees got timely assistance from two existing Jewish communities upon their arrival. The International Committee for Granting Relief to European Refugees was established in Shanghai on August 7, 1938, to manage the flood of refugees. The Joint Distribution Committee provided a lot of help to permit a large number of the refugees to achieve economic independence.

     The refugees assumed that the Shanghai experience would be a very temporary one and none expected that most refugees would stay in Shanghai for a decade or longer. Coming from the Central Europe, the refugees were ill-prepared for the radically different economic, cultural, and climatic conditions in Shanghai. However, most finally settled in the heavily Chinese- and Japanese-populated Hongkou area of the Shanghai International Settlement, north of Suzhou Creek.

     The refugees reflected German Jewish society in general from Orthodox, Reform to secularists. Despite the wide range of religious practice within the refugee body, a single organization, the Community of Central European Jews, united them and provided a comprehensive service to the refugees, including religious education, a women’s league, a cemetery and burial society, kosher slaughtering, and an arbitration board to resolve disputes.  

Polish Jewish Community

     In 1941, about 1,000 Jews mostly from Poland arrived in Shanghai from Japan. Zerah Wahrhafting, who was an influential leader of the Mizrahi Movement and member of the Israeli Cabinet from 1962 to 1974, came to Shanghai in 1941 and paved the way for Polish Jews to resettle in Shanghai through many talks with the Japanese authorities. Among those Jews were all the teachers and students of the Mirre Yeshiva, some 400 in number. The Mirre Yeshiva was the sole intact higher Talmudic academy in Eastern Europe that survived the Holocaust. They escaped from Lesovelia, Poland through Vilna, and obtained transit visas to Japan from the Japanese consul in Kovno. After a short stay in Kobe Japan, they made their way to Shanghai. Their study and daily worship services were never interrupted by the War. They continued to print their own books in Yiddish and Hebrew. Together with remnants of several other yeshivot, they were devoted to the study of Judaism and continued their studies in the Beth Aharon Synagogue throughout the War. Some students were also invited to teach at Jewish schools in Shanghai, which strengthened the tie of Judaism among those Jews in Shanghai.

Jewish Communal Life and Practice of Judaism

     Jewish communal life in Shanghai started with the Sephardic Jews shortly after they settled in the city. In 1862, the Sassoons endowed land for use as a Jewish cemetery, the first communal project established in Shanghai. To meet their religious need, the community set up its first synagogue named as Beth El in 1887.  In 1900, Shearith Israel synagogue started in use and served as house of worship and of Torah study. Their religious observances and the use of Judeo-Arabic written in a cursive Hebrew script as their lingua franca reflected their radically separate ethnicity in China.

The growing size of the congregation warranted a larger place for worship in the 1910s. Sir Jacob Sassoon and his brother Sir Edward endowed the Ohel Rachel Synagogue. It was named after Sir Jacob Sassoon’s late wife, Rachel. It was the first purpose-built edifice for divine worship in Shanghai and was consecrated on January 23, 1921. It has a capacity to hold up to 700 people in its cavernous sanctuary. Marble pillars flanked a walk-in ark and wide balconies overlooked the sanctuary. As many as 30 Torah scrolls were held in the ark. The synagogue was considered as “second to none in the East.” The site hosted the Shanghai Jewish School, library, and mikveh. With the completion of the Ohel Rachel, the Shanghai Sephardim community appointed Rabbi Hirsch as its first rabbi.

     Another synagogue, Beth Aaron Synagogue, was built in 1927 on Museum Road (today’s Hu Qiu Road) as a gift to the community from Silas Aaron Hardoon, a wealthy Jewish entrepreneur in Shanghai, to replace Shearith Israel synagogue. In 1940s, it became the House of worship and study for the students and their rabbis of the Mirre Yeshiva. The synagogue was demolished in 1985.

     In 1932 the Sephardic community appointed Rev. Brown, an Ashkenazi rabbi, as the rabbi of the congregation. The appointment of Ashkenazi rabbis implied a reduced commitment to the preservation of Sephardic traditions. Some innovations such as a choir, a few Ashkenazi melodies, a sermon, and prayer books with the English translation alongside the Hebrew, were introduced. Other than those, there was no intrinsic change in the form of the Sephardic service.

     The Ashkenazi Community followed their own traditions and rituals, had their own house of worship. In 1902, a synagogue committee was formed in Shanghai by Russian Jews and inaugurated in 1907 in a rented premise and named it “Ohel Moshe” after Moshe Greenberg, a leading Russian Jewish personality.

     In 1925 Rabbi Meir Ashkenazi, a Lubavicher Hassid, was invited to become the Shanghai Russian Jews’ spiritual leader. He served as the Chief Rabbi of Shanghai from 1926-1949 and was the able spokesman for the Ashkenazi community, directing its many relief, educational, and religious affairs. He found the small rented synagogue inadequate for the growing community’s requirements. With his efforts, a building was remodeled into a synagogue for the congregation in 1927. The second floor was removed and pillars were erected to support its roof. A mezzanine was constructed for women to pray separately from men as required by orthodox Jews. This Ohel Moshe Synagogue served as an early religious center for the Russian Jewish community for many years. In April 1941, a modern Ashkenazi Jewish synagogue was built, which provided seats for 1,000 people. Russian Jews called it the New Synagogue. The services in this synagogue continued until 1956.

     Education is an essential element of Jewish identity and is one of the brightest aspects of the Jewish experience for the young. In the early period in Shanghai, Jews adopted the traditional method of father instructing son, or hiring a private tutor. The children learnt to recite prayers and read Biblical Hebrew. As their number grew, the Shearith Israel Synagogue incorporated in 1902 a Talmud Torah, where six boys were enrolled and learned Hebrew and religious studies through the medium of Judeo-Arabic in the first year. Later when European refugees came, many refugee children attended this school. In 1944, there were as many as 300 students at the school, which had its campuses in different districts of Shanghai. The Shanghai Jewish Youth Association, better known as the Kadoorie School, was founded specially for the refugees. Another, smaller school, the Ismar Freysinger School was more religiously-oriented school for the refugees. Those schools and other educational groups played a very important role in providing basic education of Judaism to the younger generation during the War. Hebrew classes and traditional orientation to Jewish education stressed that Jews are a distinct national group, bound together by a connection of Judaism.

     Zion, the underlying theme in Judaism, was an integral part of Shanghai Jews’ conception of a Jewish identity. The Shanghai Zionist Association, the SZA, was founded in 1903 with Sir Elly Kadoorie its first president. The SZA was one of the three earliest Zionist organizations in Asia and sent representatives to the Sixth Zionist Congress. The SZA also won the support and endorsement of Chinese government to the Balfore Declaration. New streams of Zionism were introduced into Shanghai with the arrival of Russian Jews. Shanghai saw the emergence of all kinds of Zionist organizations such as the Revisionist, the Mizrachi, the Poalei Zion, the Betar and the Irgun in 1920s and 1930s. Those organizations were very active. The conflicts among different groups were limited. They succeeded in finding common ground on major issues. In April 1947, more than 8,000 Jews gathered to protest the hanging by the British authorities in Palestine of four Irgun activists. After the founding of the State of Israel, the Shanghai Betar and Irgun sent two groups of young volunteers to Palestine in fall 1948 to join the Independent War.

     In September 1932, following hostilities with the Japanese, a Jewish platoon, gathering together all Jewish members of the corps, became a respected unit of the Shanghai Volunteer Corps. It was commanded by Captain Noel S. Jacobs. The Platoon expanded on May 23, 1933, to become the all-Jewish Hebrew Company under Jacobs’s command. The majority of its members were Russian Jews. The collar of their uniform sported a metal Shield of David with the letters SVC superimposed. One of their undeclared aims was to acquire military experience for eventual participation in the fight for Jewish independence in Palestine.

     Cultural life was extremely rich in Jewish communities in Shanghai. From 1903 to 1945, more than fifty Jewish Newspapers and magazines published in Shanghai in English, Russian, German, French, Hebrew, Yiddish, and Polish. Among them Israel’s Messenger, Our Life, The Jewish Call, Shanghai Jewish Chronicle exerted a great influence on Jewish life of the city. Many books in Hebrew, Yiddish, English on Judaism were printed in Shanghai, including prayer books, Jewish calendars, the Talmud, Bibles, and books by Moses Maimonides.

     Highly qualified Jewish musicians such as Aaron Avshalomov, Alfred Wittenberg, Walter Joachim, and Arrigo Foa not only enriched local life, but also entered the world of Shanghai’s academia and trained a number of young Chinese musicians in classical music, who in turn became leading musicians in contemporary China.

     Jews in Shanghai, especially the Sephardi and the Central European refugees, suffered a great deal during the Japanese occupation of the city. Their business was ruined as the economy collapsed. After the outbreak of the Pearl Harbor attack, some Sephardic Jews, who had British passports, were interned as enemies of Japan. Under the pressure of the Nazi Germany, the Japanese authorities proclaimed, on February 18, 1943, the establishment of “the Designated Area for Stateless Refugees” in Shanghai, ordering Jewish refugees who had arrived in Shanghai from Europe since 1937 to move into the area within a month. The area became well-known “Hongkou Ghetto.” Those who continued to work outside of Hongkou needed special passes with the hour of their return clearly specified. Those who failed to return in time were often punished or had their passes confiscated. Confinement, poor diet and sanitation, in addition to restrictive methods of Japanese surveillance, put thousands of Jews in a difficult, unpredictable, dangerous, and insufferable situation.

Harbin Jewish Community

     The Harbin Jewish Community could be considered as a large umbrella organization that covered an area of Northeast China and today’s Inner Mongolia, where thousands of Jews settled from the end of the 19th century to the mid-20th century.

     Harbin as a modern Chinese city was founded in 1898 when Russian engineers chose it as the headquarters for the Chinese Eastern Railway Company. Plans for a railway across Manchuria to Vladivostok was part of a treaty between China and Russia in 1896 ensuring mutual assistance against any future Japanese aggression.  To build the railway Russia also obtained extraterritorial rights, two and half miles on each side of the railway. Harbin soon became a thriving Russian town. Russian Jews began to gravitate to this part of China. Beginning with the construction of the Chinese Eastern Railway from Manchuli to Hailar, Jews from Russia began to settle in Northeast China and Inner Mongolia.

     Jews were almost free from persecution because Tsar Nicholas II, at the end of the 19th century, was anxious to Russify and encouraged immigration of Russians, including Russian Jews, to this region in order to strengthen Russian influence. The Tsar declared that Jews willing to settle along the Railway would be allowed freedom of religion, unrestricted business rights, and quota-free education. Besides Russian authorities in Northeast China did not want to show the Chinese that any white man—even a Jew—could be treated as inferior to an Asian. Many Russian Jews fleeing pogroms in Odessa, Kishinev, and other towns, decided to move to Northeast China for permanent settlement.

     Jewish population in Harbin grew fast. On February 16, 1903, the Jewish Minority Community was founded in Harbin, numbering some 500 people. After the Russian defeat in the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War, many demobilized Jewish soldiers in the Tsar’s army settled in Harbin and were soon joined by their families. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and subsequent Russian civil war brought a flood of refugees, both White Russians and Jewish, to Harbin. In the 1920s there were as many as 15,000 Jews in Harbin and nearby towns, making the Harbin Jewish Community the largest in the Far East.

     The Japanese occupation of Northeast China in 1931 and the establishment of the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo in 1932 had negative impact on the Harbin Jewish Community. The Japanese economic domination and harsh treatment of Jews coupled with the general lawlessness and anti-Semitic attacks caused many Jews to leave Harbin for Tianjin, Shanghai, and Palestine. The Jewish population of Harbin fell from 13,000 in 1929 to less than 5,000 in 1939.

     Jews in Harbin were a homogenous group, consisting primarily of Russian Jews with a small number of Polish Jews. The Jewish Religious Community of Harbin, as it was named at the time, was a well-organized and supreme governing body. It stood for all Jews in the area and served all their needs. Its by-laws define such main functions as tending to the religious needs of the Jewish immigrants; managing the funds of the synagogues and the rabbis; managing the Jewish traditional method of slaughter of livestock; managing the Jewish cemetery and organizing funeral services; registering births, deaths, marriages and divorces; dealing with the Chinese authorities, and acting according to the laws of China; supervising the Jewish school for the immigrants; organizing cultural and educational activities; handling of all kinds of charities to needy immigrants.

     The Harbin Jewish Cemetery was established in 1903. It had a small synagogue of its own. The Central Synagogue was built in 1907. In 1921 the New Synagogue was built. Both synagogues were orthodox. The first rabbi hired by the Community was Rabbi Shevel Levin, who had served in Omsk and Chita in Siberia before he came to Harbin. Rabbi Aaron Kiselev served in Harbin from 1913 until his death in 1949.

     Dr. Abraham Kaufman, the community leader since 1919, played a leading role in the Harbin Jewish Community. He chaired the Far Eastern Jewish Council and held three times of the Conference of Jewish Communities in the Far East from 1937 to 1939. He was arrested by the Soviet Red Army in 1945 and taken back to the Soviet Union, where he was imprisoned at a labor camp for ten years.

     The Jewish Community of Harbin was a very active and comprehensive community. Besides synagogues, it ran a school, a library, a hospital, two Jewish banks, a home for the aged, and numerous charitable organizations. The Talmud Torah (Jewish religious school) was established in Harbin in 1919, which provided Jewish traditional education for children and young people. The Community had many publications in Russian and in Yiddish. Among them, Yevreskaya Zhizn was published from 1920 to 1940. Cultural and social activities such as theatrical performances and musical offerings enriched the community’s life.

     Zionism and Zionist activities played an important role in communal life. There existed all kinds of Zionist organizations such as Poalei Zion, Bund, Betar, Agudat Israel, and Revisionist Zionism in Harbin. Because of Zionist spirit and influence, quite a few Jews in the twenties and thirties immigrated to Israel, making aliyah.

     In 1937, the Community created the Far Eastern Jewish Council, which in turn, held the Conference of Jewish Communities in the Far East three times from 1937-1939 in Harbin. Each conference was attended by several hundred of Jewish representatives from Tianjin, Shanghai, and other Chinese cities; and from Kobe, Japan. A decision was reached at the 1937 Conference that all the Jewish communities in China would be combined into a single overall autonomous association. It would cover all religious problems; all educational, cultural, social, and economic activities; support orphanages; care for refugees from Central Europe; and register all Jews and all the Jewish organizations in the Far East.

     The Harbin Jewish Community suffered a heavy blow at the end of WWII when Russian Red Army declared war against the Japan and entered the city. Dr. Kaufman and other Jewish leaders were arrested, charged with anti-Soviet activities and forcibly taken to the Soviet Union. Although, the Community survived, many started to leave if they could.

Adjacent Jewish communities

     Beside Harbin, there were a number of small Jewish communities established in various cities in the early 20th century in Northeast China and Inner Mongolia, such as Hailar, Manchuli, Dalian, Mukden, and etc. All of them were connected with the Harbin Jewish Community either economically or socially.

     The Jewish settlements from Russia concentrated in Hailar and Manchuli, two major cities of Inner Mongolia at the beginning of the 20th century. Most of them were merchants of foreign trade and forestry. Places of worship were set up in Hailar in 1910 and in Manchuli in 1912. A couple of hundred Jews resided in two cities. Representatives from Hailar took part in the Far Eastern Conference of Jewish Communities held in Harbin in 1937 and 1939. Manchuli Jews run a private school. It was situated at the railroad station of Manchuli. Four school days a week, it included four grades and counted 80 students and five teachers. 

     The first Jews who came to Dalian were Russian soldiers. Among them was Joseph Trumpeldor who was captured by the Japanese in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. He became the first Jewish officer to be decorated by the Tsar for his bravery. He stayed in Harbin after his release and made aliyah.

     Jewish settlers from Russia came to Dalian in 1900. They were few in numbers, but Jews began to trickle to the city from Harbin after the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. On December 8, 1929, the Dalian Jewish Society was inaugurated and chief motives for the organization were religious duties, charitable activity, and cultural work. The Jewish Society of Dalian had 58 members in 1929 and 180 in 1940.

Tianjin Jewish Community

     Jews might have settled in Tianjin as early as 1860s when the city became an open port for foreign trade. However, there was no Jewish organization until 1904 when the Tianjin Hebrew Association was founded. The Community consisted mostly of Russian Jews. As a result, the Association was registered with Russian Consulate in Tianjin and considered as an organization of Russia. The population of the Community grew rapidly after the October Revolution in Russia in 1917 and again after Japanese occupation of Northeast China in 1931, when many Jews came from Harbin. In 1935, Jewish population of Tianjin reached some 2,500, probably the highest figure in its history.

     Most Jews in Tianjin engaged in commercial activities, especially the fur trade. There were more than 100 fur firms owned by Jews in the city. Furs were obtained in Northeast China but sorted and processed in Tianjin. Fur products were chiefly shipped to American and European markets. Tianjin Jews were also involved other export business. Though most Jews in the city were secular and business oriented, they fasted on Yom Kippur, held family seders, observed the specific diet of Passover, and attended services on the High Holidays. Every household celebrated the major freedom festivals of Hanukkah and Purim. They also marked Lag B’Omer.

     The Tianjin Jewish Community was an integrated society. They had a communal committee to take care of needs of its members. Jewish cemetery was created in 1904. Leo I. Gershevich, a fur merchant in Tianjin, served as the community leader for many years. Under his leadership, a Jewish school was established in October 1925 to provide a religious and secular education. There were 132 students at the school in 1934. In 1928 a Jewish club was founded and soon became the center of the communal life. It housed a library with a few thousand volumes of books and reading rooms. A benevolent society and interest-free loan fund relieved the poor and helpless, and set them on the road to self-support.

     For the community’s first three decades, worship was conducted in a small rented apartment. The Tianjin Jewish Community started a fundraising activity for a synagogue in 1937 and finally built their own house of worship in 1939. Rabbi Levi was in charge of the synagogue. Today, the building still remains standing and the Star of David is clearly seen.

     Zionist activities played an important role in the community organizing any young people. A few hundred Jewish refugees from Europe were accepted by the Community during WWII. A grand gathering was held in front of the synagogue upon the news of the founding of the State of Israel in 1948. The Community had a very strong tie with the Harbin Jewish Community. Their representatives had participated in all three Conferences of the Jewish Communities in the Far East in Harbin.

     The Tianjin Jewish Community also served Jews in nearby area such as Qingdao and Beijing. Though no Jewish organization was ever established in Beijing, a Jewish association was founded in Qingdao.

     Most Jews in Qingdao were Russian origin though the first Jews were mainly German citizens who came as merchants, bank employees or diplomats at the end of the 19th century. The population increased after the October Revolution in Russia. In 1920 Jews formed a congregation for religious activities. They had a synagogue of their own. For many years F.M. Torabinskii, a Russian Jew, served as the head of the congregation. In 1940 there were 221 Jews who resided in Qingdao. After WWII, American Navy warships were stationed in the city. Quite a few Jewish servicemen joined the Community and its services. In the 1950s, all Jews left.


     The surrender of Japan brought some hopes for Jews in China. For the European refugees, the first positive change was the complete resumption of communication with the outside world and the flow of much-needed money into the community. The arrival of the American armed forces provided jobs and opportunities for them. Moreover, they were able to move around and had opportunities to go to a third country to join their family or relatives. The majority started plans to leave. It was quite natural for them to do so because they had never planned to come to China, in the first place. They ended up in China simply because they did not have any other choices. Countries such as the United States, Canada, and Australia became their destinations if visa could be obtained. However, the doors of most countries were still not open to them. The founding of the State of Israel appeared to be an opportunity. In 1948, right after its establishment, Israel opened an office in Shanghai to welcome Jews to Israel and about 10,000 Jews found a new home there.

     For the Sephardi and Russians, China had been home for a generation or more. Many of them considered staying on. Some started to invest and others started to rebuild their business. But their hopes were short-lived. Civil War broke out between the Nationalists and the Communists in 1946. Those well-established Jewish families in the city, such as the Sassoons and the Kadoories, had transferred their business elsewhere, the Sassoons to the Bahamas and the Kadoories to Hong Kong.

By the time the Communists took over the power of the country in 1949, most Jews had already left China. However, a few thousands remained and lived in Chinese cities for another 10 years before their final departure from China. By the mid-1950s the total number was less than 1,000. Because of the declining of Jewish population, various Jewish organizations established early on were either diminished or merged. The Council of the Jewish Community, which was first created in Shanghai in 1949 after the founding of the People’s Republic of China and registered with the Foreign Affairs Department of the Shanghai Military Committee on September 1, 1950 as a voluntary charitable organization for the welfare of China Jewry, took over the responsibility of administrative work in connection with the repatriation and resettlement of Jews residing in China to all parts of the world when the American Joint Distribution Committee closed its Shanghai office in 1951. The Council became the instrumental organization of the remaining Jews responsible for their welfare. By July 1956, the centralized management of the properties and the internal affairs of both the Ashkenazi and the Sephardic Communal Associations, which had been handling its own affairs separately for the last 50 years, had finally merged into the Council’s office. The Council not only represented the Shanghai Jewish community but also represented the Jewish communities in Tianjin and Harbin. It was in charge of the general budget and migration affairs of those communities and its annual reports include all the communities. It took over the complete responsibility of the welfare of remaining Jews in Tianjin after the liquidation of the Tianjin Hebrew Association in 1958.

     In Shanghai, the New Synagogue on Chao Yang Road, which was built in 1941, served as the only living synagogue in Shanghai for years. However, because the expense of maintaining the large premises in the face of dwindling attendance and growing financial need among the local Jewish population could no longer be justified, it was decided to dispose of the synagogue building. The transaction was concluded in July 1956 and the buyer was the House and Land Control Bureau of the Chinese People’s Government. The reason to sell it to the Bureau was the Bureau offered high price. Several Torah Scrolls and a quantity of religious books owned by the local community were shipped to the Ministry for Religion of Israel as a gift.

     The Jewish population in Harbin District was 153 by the end of June 1959, the largest Jewish community in China then. The Harbin Jewish Community was the only one that was able to keep its synagogue building by the end of 1950s. Daily services had continued to be held in the synagogue with large attendance for the Sabbath and holidays prayers by 1959. Children’s parties on Purim and Hanukkah were still organized. The Jewish Community of Harbin finally stopped functioning on November 20, 1965, which marked the official end of the 100 years community. 

     In Tianjin, there were 130 Jews remaining, including children, in 1955. Due to the shrinking population and difficult financial status, the Association decided to sell its synagogue building in 1955. The deal was closed in May 1955. With the anticipated departure of all Jews in the Tianjin District, the liquidation of the Tianjin Hebrew Association was suggested early in 1957. On September 27, 1957 application to close down the Association was filed with the local authorities and a notice published in the Tianjin newspaper. The liquidation was completed in January 1958. This brought to an end of the Association that had existed for over half a century. Before the final close of the Association, one Sefer Torah was sent to Israel and useful archives were sent to the Council in Shanghai for safekeeping and future reference. The welfare of the remaining Jews was taken over by the Council.

     Jewish culture activities, such as publishing newspapers, organizing performances, came to a halt. The Shanghai Jewish Club, which was first established in 1930s and served as one of culture centers for Shanghai Jewry, closed its doors on December 31, 1955. Over 30000 selected books from the Club’s library were shipped to the Ministry for Education and Culture in Israel as a gift. However, a reading and recreation room was created in the Shelter House, making newspapers, magazines and remaining books accessible to every Jew in Shanghai.

     We could see clearly that the Jewish Diaspora in Modern China, which had lasted for about 100 years, faded away gradually by the end of 1950s. By 1966 when China started its Cultural Revolution, only a few elderly Jews remained and eventually died in China. The practice of Judaism in Mainland China ceased completely.


     However, the history of Jewish Diaspora in China does not end in the 1960s. Since 1979, thanks to China’s reform and “Open Door Policy”, of which the goals were to attract foreign investments to China and to establish ties with the rest of the World, especially with the Western countries, Jewish presence in China revived. With more and more Jews coming to work, invest, study, and live in China, the practice of Judaism once again become part of life in Chinese society.

     In 1995, Friday night services began to be held regularly every week at the Capital Club of Beijing. Sabbath prayer books and a Sefer Torah were donated to the community, which enable the community to celebrate all major holidays. On both the High Holy Days and the Passover Seder, the community can expect to have 200 present. Other important landmarks for the community include it first bar mitzah in 1996 and its first b’rit millah in 1997. This community is headed by Roberta Lipson and Elyse Silverberg, two Jewish businesswomen, and affiliated with the Progressive movement of Judaism. In 2001, Rabbi Shimon Freundlich from Chabad-Lubavitch movement came and settled in Beijing. His mission is to build and lead the center of Chabad-Lubavitch of Beijing, an Orthodox congregation there.

     Jews began to return to Shanghai in the 1980’s. In the mid-1990s, they got organized and established the contemporary Shanghai Jewish Community. Rabbi Shalom Greenberg from Chabad-Lubavitch in New York arrived in Shanghai to serve this community in August 1998. Rabbi Arthur Schneier, President of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation from New York, donated a Sefer Torah to the community that same year. The size of the community is 250. Regular Shabbat services and kosher meals have been implemented, as well as, child and adult education classes, bar and bat mitzvah training and social brunches. On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, in September 1999, a Jewish New Year service was held at the Ohel Rachel Synagogue for first time since 1952.

Jewish Community in Hong Kong

     Jewish Diaspora in Hong Kong is a unique case and needs to be addressed separately because Hong Kong had been under the British rule from 1842 to 1997, when it reverted to Chinese sovereignty. The beginning of the Hong Kong Jewish Community was more or less similar to that of the Shanghai Jewish Community. The leading members of the community, such as the Sassoon family and the Kadoorie brothers, lived and invested in both cities though with more of a presence in Shanghai. The first Jews arrived in Hong Kong in 1843 and 1844, the years immediately following the ceding of Hong Kong to the British under the Treaty of Nanjing, which brought unprecedented access to China for foreign merchants and the promise of security. A small community of Jewish merchants, by and large from Bombay and Calcutta with Sephardic origin, was taking shape as early as the 1860s. The number of Jews in Hong Kong reached 71 in 1881. By 1900, there were about 150 Sephardi living in Hong Kong. Ashkenazi started to arrive in the 1880s and 1890s when the pogroms broke out in Eastern Europe.

     The communal life started shortly after Jews settled in Hong Kong. The Jewish cemetery in Hong Kong was first established in 1857. In 1870, the first synagogue was set up in a rental house on Hollywood Street. In 1881, a new synagogue in memory of Sir Jacob Sassoon’s mother, Leah, replaced the older one. On Yom Kippur of 1896, 67 attended the service.

     In the first ten years of the 20th century, three things were done to lay a solid foundation for the future of the community. First, the Ohel Leah Synagogue was constructed in 1901 as a gift for the Hong Kong Jewish Community from the Sassoon Family and consecrated in 1902. The Synagogue is still in use today and has become a city landmark. Secondly, the communal cemetery was enlarged in 1904 to meet the need of the community with assistance of Sir Matthew Nathan, the only Jewish Governor of Hong Kong. Thirdly, a Jewish recreation club was created for all Jews with the donation from the Kadoorie family in 1905 and enlarged in 1909, which symbolized a community-focused spirit.

     The community did not grow quickly as most Jewish merchants were attracted to Shanghai, which was developing dramatically and proved to be a better place for business investment from 1910 to 1936. However, the Japanese occupation of Mainland China in the late 1930s caused many Jews to leave Shanghai, Tianjin, and Harbin for Hong Kong. But this refuge was short-lived when Japan occupied Hong Kong in 1941. The following four years was the darkest page in the history of the Hong Kong Jewish Community as community leaders were detained and put into camps and business suffered. However, the Hong Kong Jewish Community recovered after WWII and remained steady over the following 30 years. The 1980s witnessed a rapid growth and development of the Hong Kong community, with newcomers making up 64% of population by the end of the decade.

     An open acceptance of Jews from many parts of the world characterized early Jewish life in Hong Kong. The community did not employ a rabbi until 1960s though it benefited from the services of visiting rabbis over the years. Observant members of the community, including Lady Muriel Kadoorie’s father, David Gubbay, often conducted services. The first officially appointed rabbi arrived in 1961. In 1985, Rabbi Mordechai Avtzon from Chabad Lubavitch was invited to serve the community for one year and after finishing his term, stayed on in Hong Kong to create a center for the Chabad-Lubavitch movement in Asia.

     In 1969, a Hebrew school was set up in Hong Kong to promote Jewish education. By 1973, school attendance had grown to 80 children. In 1991, the Carmel Jewish Day School was established to give a full-time education option for the community’s children. 

     In recent years, Hong Kong’s growing population has led to a natural diversification in the religious life of the community. There are now four congregations, which have their own rabbis and places of worship. They are Orthodox Ohel Leah Congregation, the Chabad Lubavitch Congregation, the Progressive United Jewish Congregation, and the Conservative Shuva Israel Congregation.

     Religious links between Hong Kong and China have enjoyed a revival since the mid-1980s, following the revival of Jewish Diaspora in China. The Ohel Leah Synagogue was quick to support these activities by serving as a source for Pesach supplies and various educational materials.

Also since 1980s, the Hong Kong Jewish Community has strengthened its tie with Israel. The Community center becomes a “home” for Israeli diplomatic and business representatives in Hong Kong. The Jewish community redeveloped the site of the Jewish Recreation Club and turned it into a modern Jewish Community Center in the early 1990s, serving the entire Jewish community of Hong Kong.

     When Hong Kong reverted to China on July 1, 1997, the Jewish Community, who have played an important role in its development and contributed to its enterprise, its professions and its civil life, remain committed to the territory. According to the law a good many of the Hong Kong Jews have become Chinese citizens or have long-term residence rights. There were 2,500 Jews living in Hong Kong according to the statistics of the Israeli embassy, as of February 1998. It is estimated that about 5,000 Jews live in Hong Kong in 2000.

Jewish Community in Taiwan

     Jews began to appear in Taiwan after the retreat of Chiang Kai-shek and his forces to Taiwan in 1949. The first Jews were those who served in the US army stationed in Taiwan in the 1950s and Jewish religious services were first organized and held in the military compound. In the 1970s, as the Taiwan economy boomed, more and more Jews came to live or work in Taiwan. A Jewish community was first established in Taipei in 1975. Yaacov Liberman, who was born in Harbin and went to Israel in 1948, was elected as the community leader. The Communal Center is located in a rented villa in Tienmou, a residential suburb of Taipei where most Jews lived. In 1989, the resident Jewish population was 148 from a dozen countries such as Australia, Canada, England, France, Germany, Israel, Panama, South Africa, Switzerland, and the United States. Although a few families were permanent residents, a majority was businessmen or employees of various companies, who conducted and supervised businesses in Taiwan.

      Besides Shabbat services at the Community Center, the Community also provides for visitors and those who stay in downtown regular Shabbat services every Friday evening, Saturday morning and afternoon at the President Hotel in Downtown of Taipei. Prayer books, prayer shawls, kosher wine, Havdalah candles, and spice boxes are kept in the hotel permanently. A monthly bulletin is published with material on all holidays and other religious activities. The Community is a member of the Asia Pacific Jewish Association.



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Xu Xin, Professor of Department of Religious Studies, Director of the Glazer Institute of Jewish and Israel Studies Nanjing University.