(JNS.org) Five women who are among the few remaining traceable descendants of China's ancient Kaifeng Jewish community made aliyah to Israel this week.
"Our ancestors are Jews...I have to be here," said one of the new immigrants, Yue Ting, a 25-year-old primary school teacher.
The women plan to formally convert to Judaism and become Israeli citizens.
Kaifeng's Jewish population was established by traveling Jewish merchants from the Middle East and Persia who settled in China in the 7th century. The community once had as many as 5,000 members, but today that number has dwindled to about 1,000. The community’s last synagogue was destroyed two centuries ago, and its members have since lost many of their connections to Jewish traditions. Yet the community never completely let go of its Jewish roots.
"As a child, my parents and people around me always called me 'Jewish girl,'" Yue told NBC News. "I didn't understand the meaning of Jewish at that time."
"When I was a little girl, my father and my grandfather taught me we are Jews," added Li Yuan, 26.
Michael Freund—founder of the Shavei Israel organization, which helps members of so-called "lost" Jewish communities from around the world make aliyah—has helped 19 Kaifeng Jews move to Israel since 2006.
"Judaism is not a recognized religion in China...in the eyes of the government they are Han Chinese just like anyone else," Freund said.
"I know I am Jewish," said Yue. "To be Jewish, I have to go back to Israel...I've been waiting for this time for a long time."