Twenty-nine Maidenhead Synagogue members have returned from a fortnight touring China, during which they met Jews who could trace their lineage back to the 12th century, when Jews first arrived from India.
“The old joke about Chinese Jews not looking Jewish is no joke,” reported tour co-leader Rabbi Jonathan Romain.
“Many are totally indistinguishable from the rest of the population. What is remarkable is how they are rediscovering their Judaism in the more liberal atmosphere following the totalitarian period.”
Maidenhead members visited Beijing, Shanghai — which gave refuge to 23,000 Jews during the Holocaust — and Kaifeng, where efforts are being made to restore the ancient synagogue.
Rabbi Romain added that there was no historic antipathy towards Jews in China, who had good relations with Israel and were able to make aliyah.
However, as Judaism was not one of the five recognised religions in China, services could not have an assembly of more than 10 people, a law the community was trying to change.
“Having witnessed the rebirth of Soviet Jewry in previous decades, we are now seeing another Jewish phoenix rise from the ashes. The numbers are smaller but the process is just as remarkable.”
The other co-leader was John Dunston, a former headteacher who had conducted school trips to China but never a synagogue one.