EARLY VISITS TO KAIFENG
As China began to open up following the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), foreign visitors and journalists began to visit Kaifeng again for the first time since the mid-1950s -- several Sino-Judaic Institute founders among them.
For a number of years in the late 1970s, one of the founding Board members of SJI, Michael Pollak, had been tirelessly and thoroughly tracking down leads and references to the Kaifeng Jews, which led to the publication of his book, Mandarins, Jews and Missionaries. Through his correspondence, Pollak became connected with almost every living authority and activist on the subject of the Kaifeng Jewish community, past or present.
Stanford Professor Emeritus Albert E. Dien, SJI's second President, visited Kaifeng once in 1980 and twice in 1981. He recalls that he had brought a copy of a 1910 map of Kaifeng that appears in the front of the very first book on the subject -- Chinese Jews, written by Bishop William Charles White, who had himself spent over 40 years in China, 25 of which were spent directly in Kaifeng. As he remembered:
There were no maps for sale, especially to foreigners at that time, so I had no way of locating where our hostel was on White's map. But when we were taken to the Longting, or Dragon Pavilion, a temple on a hill that overlooked the city, I spotted a steeple which I took to be the Catholic church that was on White's map, near to which was the Plucking the Sinew Religion Lane. So after lunch, when everyone was taking siesta, it was terribly hot, I set out for the church. It of course had long since not served as a church, but was a storage facility, with broken windows and birds flying around inside. So I followed the map and headed down Caoshi or Straw Market Street, toward where the synagogue had been. On the way a crowd gathered around me, it had been years since a foreigner had walked down that street. I of course wanted to be unobtrusive, especially since I had not gotten permission to make this walk. Luckily, a mentally disturbed person decided to clear a path for me through the crowd and parked bicycles. He soon got into a quarrel with someone who objected to his moving a bicycle, and the crowed gathered around the quarreling pair, and I was able to slip off.
When I got to the lane, and saw the street sign, Tiaojinjiao hutong, the hair on the back of my neck literally, in the only time in my life, stood up. I walked a bit down the lane, then asked some women standing there if there were any Jews (Youtairen) on the lane. They pointed to a house, I knocked on the door, and an old lady came out with her daughter-in-law. This was Mrs. Zhao. I had some pictures from White's book, especially the one on p. 130, 16A, of an old man, his son and a grandson. When some of the women saw it, they murmured "Lao die," or Old Grandpa. The little grandson in the picture is now the head of the household, in his 50's. His mother, the elderly Mrs. Zhao, was rather apprehensive—this was still close to the end of the Cultural Revolution and contact with foreigners was still considered suspicious. Mr. Zhao was at work, so I said I would come back later in the day. The daughter-in-law led me back to the main street by a series of alleys that was a short-cut. On the way she complained that everyone said she was Jewish though she was Chinese.
I felt that I could not keep this from the others in the group, so later that afternoon, I told them about the meeting and said anyone who wished to could go back with me. Of course this time, with a whole troop of foreigners coming, there was much more excitement in the neighborhood. But for the Zhao's it had been enough. When we knocked, no one answered. The people around said they had gone out. We walked further down the lane to see the site of the synagogue, but of course it was occupied by some sort of factory, I no longer remember what it was. Later, I believe it became a hospital. Thus ended my first encounter with the Kaifeng Jews. It had been an emotional experience for me, but I am afraid there was not much learned. The next year, 1981, I returned to Kaifeng twice, but neither time was as dramatic as that first time.
Dr. Ronald Kaye, one of the earliest members of SJI, visited Kaifeng in 1981 with his wife. Because of the medical aid he provided there, the local people, who had said that the steles no longer existed, reversed their position and took the Kayes to the basement of the Kaifeng Museum where Dr. Kaye saw the steles -- stone monuments which recounted the origins of the Jews in China and their religion -- and took rubbings of them. While there, he also led a seder with some of the Jewish families.
SJI's first President, Leo Gabow, visited Kaifeng for the first time in 1982, while Dr. Wendy Abraham led the first official group tour from America to Kaifeng in August of 1983. They met with Shi Zhongyu and Zhao Pingyu—the only two descendants that local authorities would allow to be "shown" to visitors. Security guards kept a close watch on the gathering, monitoring questions and responses. During their very first meeting, her group took some photos and, after she gave one to Shi Zhongyu, he quietly handed it back to her. She noticed he had written his name and his home address on the back of it rather than his danwei, or work unit. She took this as a sign that he would like to communicate, and that is how her long correspondence and connection with the Shi family began.
Rabbi Joshua Stampfer, another founding member of SJI, went to Kaifeng in 1983. His group met with members of the Shi, Zhao, and Ai families. Rabbi Stampfer recalled that they showed his group pictures of their recent ancestors wearing “Jewish” caps but that they knew nothing of their history or of their connection with Jews elsewhere.
Shortly after Dr. Abraham returned to the States in September of 1983, she thought about creating an organization to help the descendants. Dr. Abraham spoke about this with Prof. Donald Leslie, the foremost scholar of the ancient Jewish community in Kaifeng, with whom she had been communicating about her dissertation on the Chinese Jews. He told her that an organization with a similar aim of reconnecting with the descendants was already being seriously discussed and he put her in touch with other interested parties -- all of those noted above.
The moving spirit behind the founding of the Sino-Judaic Institute was its first President, Leo Gabow. Not an academic himself, Leo was nevertheless deeply committed to scholarly research on the Jews of China. He had developed this interest while pursuing a business career in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia. Leo had great energy and enthusiasm for our subject and began to gather other interested parties together for discussions in the Palo Alto area, where he, Prof. Al Dien, Dr. Ron Kaye and others lived. Michael Pollak and Rabbi Joshua Stampfer would fly in from Dallas and Portland respectively for meetings.
In December of 1984, he received a letter from Prof. Louis Schwartz, who was spending an academic year teaching in Beijing. Schwartz had already been in correspondence with Rabbi Stampfer on the subject of the Kaifeng Jews.
With Gabow’s encouragement, Schwartz and David C. Buxbaum, a bilingual Shanghai-based lawyer, travelled to Kaifeng, and made contact with the Jewish descendants, establishing close relations with Jewish families there, visiting their homes on frequent occasions, and conducting many interviews. They also connected with various local officials and scholars. After returning from China, Schwartz lived and taught on the West Coast and stayed in touch with Gabow and other scholars and activists.
Not only did Schwartz visit with the Chinese Jews, but he made friendly contact with Kaifeng’s mayor, the curator of the Kaifeng Museum, the manager of Kaifeng’s C.I.T.S., and university administrators and scholars. After many discussions with the Chinese Jews as well as with the authorities, the concept of a Jewish Museum or at least a Judaica exhibit in the Kaifeng Museum was born.
After Louis Schwartz returned from China, he lived and taught on the West Coast of the United States, and corresponded widely with other activists and Leo Gabow in particular.
Al Dien doesn’t recall there being much activity in Palo Alto until Louis Schwartz and Leo Gabow established contact. Then it was Leo's indefatigable efforts that brought together such a large and interested group utilizing the network that Michael Pollak had established through his own correspondence as well as Louis Schwartz’s more recent correspondence.
ESTABLISHMENT OF THE SINO-JUDAIC INSTITUTE
Through Leo's organizing efforts, on June 27th, 1985, an international group of scholars and activists gathered in Palo Alto, California to officially establish the Sino-Judaic Institute.
In the beginning, Rabbi Stampfer was proposed as the head of the organization but since most of the interested parties lived in the Bay Area, it was decided that the organization be incorporated in California and that its president also come from the Bay Area.
Leo Gabow was elected president and Prof. Louis Schwartz was elected honorary chairman. Michael Pollak was elected vice-president; Rabbi Anson Laytner secretary and editor of Points East; and Prof. Al Dien, treasurer. The founding Board consisted of Dr. Wendy Abraham, Rabbi Arnold Mark Belzer, David Buxbaum (Shanghai), Mark Ejlenburg (Hong Kong), Helaine Fortgang, Seymour Fromer, Dr. Ronald Kaye, Lawrence Kramer, Prof. Donald Leslie (Australia), Arthur Rosen, Rabbi Joshua Stampfer, and Robert Grodsky, counsel.
Prof. Donald Leslie, one of the field’s foremost scholars on the subject of the Chinese Jews, and his faraway presence, was crucial to SJI's beginnings. Leslie had studied directly under Joseph Needham, the eminent Chinese historian and Sinologist, renowned for his research and writing on the history of Chinese science and technology, and became his protégé. Leslie, along with Prof. Al Dien, provided SJI with the academic expertise it needed, just as Art Rosen, then President of the National Committee on United States-China Relations, provided it with political savoir faire. Rosen had served with the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai shortly after WWII and headed the National Committee for decades, overseeing it during the most exciting time in Sino-American relations, beginning with his organization’s arranging for the first American ping pong team to travel to China during the Nixon administration.
EARLY GOALS OF THE INSTITUTE
Since its inception, the Sino-Judaic Institute has functioned as the only NGO devoted solely to the study of Jewish life in China. Although the foci of our work has shifted over the decades, the purpose remains fairly constant. The primary point of contention in its early meetings concerned SJI’s mission. Even prior to SJI’s founding, the initial question was “Are there really Jews — or just descendants — in Kaifeng?” Only after a number of positive visitor reports was a majority on the Board convinced that the descendants still actually identified as Jews.
Subsequently, long hours were spent discussing whether SJI was primarily interested in doing research about the Jews on Kaifeng and other parts of China or in helping to re-develop Jewish life in Kaifeng and elsewhere. Eventually SJI adopted both goals, with an emphasis on the former.
After SJI’s founding, Rabbi Belzer went to Kaifeng in 1985, where he visited the historical sites, conducted a havdallah service with the Kaifeng Jewish descendants without incident, and interviewed a number of them. Shortly thereafter, however, Dr. Abraham traveled to Kaifeng and gathered oral histories from six of the heads of Kaifeng Jewish clans (two heads of the Shi clan, two of the Ai clan, one Zhao and one Li), before being arrested and expelled. (The original tapes of these oral histories were donated to the Hoover Archives at Stanford University in 2010.)
During Leo Gabow’s tenure as president, SJI consolidated itself as an organization, launched its journal, Points East, edited by Rabbi Anson Laytner, and its scholarly journal Sino-Judaica, edited by Prof. Al Dien, and published various articles by Michael Pollak, including the reprinting of The Sino-Judaic Bibliographies of Rudolf Lowenthal, Michael Pollak, ed., with the Hebrew Union College Press in 1988. The early years were notable for many presentations on the Jews of Kaifeng. In 1986, SJI played a major role at a conference hosted by the University of San Francisco’s Institute for Chinese-Western Cultural History entitled “Culture, China and the Jews” by providing many speakers, most notably Prof. Donald Leslie. These speaking engagements led to the creation of a traveling exhibit on the Kaifeng Jews consisting of slides and a taped narrative in 1988, which enabled SJI to go where its speakers didn’t.
Meanwhile, across the Pacific, The Jewish Historical Society (JHS) of Hong Kong was established in 1984. When SJI was founded, the JHS chairman, Mark Ejlenburg, was elected to the SJI Board. That same year, Ejlenburg asked Den Leventhal to take over the JHS chairmanship. In 1986, SJI invited Leventhal to become its Hong Kong representative, replacing Ejlenburg.
Leventhal spearheaded SJI’s move to get support from the American Jewish Committee's Pacific Rim Institute for books on the Holocaust to be sent to Prof. Xu Xin, who wanted to develop a Nanjing University course on that topic. Leventhal also worked with both JHS and SJI to get funding for Prof. Xu Xin's Chinese language Encyclopedia Judaica project. Lastly, at the request of SJI, Leventhal visited Kaifeng in June 1990 to confirm the rumor that the Kaifeng Synagogue steles were lying unprotected on the property of the Kaifeng Museum. The detailed report (sent to the SJI president) on his visit with Kaifeng governmental officials and the museum director included pictures that confirmed the rumors. The first and second steles (Ming period) were on the ground inside a storage building, and the fourth (Qian Long period) was lying on its side, leaning against another storage building, both on the museum's property. This report was the catalyst for SJI’s working with the Museum to create a proper exhibit featuring the steles and SJI-donated materials on the top floor of the Kaifeng Municipal Museum.
Prof. Al Dien succeeded Leo as president in 1990. During his 17-year tenure, SJI greatly expanded its work and also began funding fledgling Jewish Studies programs at various Chinese universities. Among the projects funded during this period:
Supported translations into Chinese
The Encyclopedia Judaica, Prof. Xu Xin, project director, 1991
Chaim Herzog's Heroes of Israel, by Fan Yuchun
Donated books to Chinese scholars, museums, and academic associations
The Shanghai Judaic Studies Association
Yao Yi’en, translator of Sholem Aleichem
Ohel Moshe Synagogue Museum in Shanghai
The Center for Judaic Studies in Harbin
Printed books and journals
The Jews of Dynastic China: A Critical Bibliography, by Michael Pollak, in
association with the Hebrew Union College Press (1993)
Facsimiles of Kaifeng materials in the manuscript collection of the Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati
The scholarly journal Sino-Judaica, Prof. Al Dien, editor, vol. 1 (1991), vol. 2 (1995), vol. 3 (2000), vol. 4 (2003)
Supported and facilitated new publications
Annals of the Chinese Jews by Wang Yisha (in Chinese)
Guide for the Jewish Traveler in China, by Al Dien
Directory of Individuals interested in the Jews and the Jewish Communities of East, outheast and South Asia, Frank J. Shulman, compiler
Provided grants to Chinese and American scholars of Sino-Judaic Studies
Wu Guifu, Director of the Institute of Strategic Studies, China’s National Defense University
Xu Xin, Nanjing University Institute of Jewish Studies (Travel to Israel)
Zhao Xiangru, Institute of Minority Studies (Travel to participate in Harvard
conference on Jews in Asia, 1990)
Teachers of World History in Chinese universities, organized by Xu Xin, Center for Jewish Studies, Nanjing University, 1997, 1999 & 2001 (Summer workshops on
Jewish history and culture)
Jonathan Goldstein (Research on Jan Zwartendijk, Dutch consul in Vilna)
Dvir Bar-Gal (Project to preserve tombstones of Jews buried in Shanghai)
Pu Rongjian, University of Science and Technology, Hefei, Anhui
She Lei, Kaifeng Jewish descendant (Study in Israel)
Xiao Xian (Publication of The Jews, A People of Mystery in Chinese)
Hosted and/or co-sponsored visiting lectures on Jews in China
Dr. Pan Guang, Center for Jewish Studies, Shanghai
Dr. Shirley Wood, Henan University, Kaifeng
Ben Levaco, former resident of Tianjin and Shanghai
Ernest Heppner, author of Shanghai Refuge
Dr. Wang Qingyu, Yale University
Sidney Shapiro, member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Council
Dr. Peter Vamos, Karoli Gaspar University, Hungary, "Home Afar: The Life of Jewish Communities in Shanghai during WWII," public lecture at the University of San Francisco
Established SJI Archives
Under the leadership of Prof. Al Dien, SJI Archives were created at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University in 1993, and updated in 1998. The late SJI Board member Rena Krasno took the lead in building the collection by reaching out to former residents of Shanghai in particular for donations of letters and other material documenting the lives of Jews in Shanghai during the War years.
In 2007 Rabbi Anson Laytner took over as President of SJI. During his tenure he accomplished the following:
In 2010, Volume 5 of the SJI journal Sino-Judaica was published, a monograph by Rabbi Dr. Chaim Simons, entitled Religious Observance by the Jews of Kaifeng China.
Created SJI Website
SJI established a website that serves as an informational hub for all aspects of Jewish life and Jewish studies in China.
Digitized SJI's newsletter, Points East, and made it available on the SJI website.
Resumed Activity in Kaifeng
Funded a Jewish school in Kaifeng
Sent Western Jews to Kaifeng to teach Hebrew, Judaism, and Jewish history
Sent annual delegations to visit Kaifeng
New SJI Logo
Commissioned an SJI logo and chose a new Chinese name for the Institute
Restructured the SJI Board
In 2008 the SJI Board was restructured to create a managing board, comprised of North American members, and an international advisory board with members from North America, Europe, Israel, China, Australia and elsewhere.
Instituted Online Grant-making
SJI Board member Den Leventhal formalized SJI’s grant-making guidelines online. A new Grants Committee awarded grants to:
Dr. Cao Jian for a post-doctoral project on "Men & Ideas of the Tanakh in Modern Chinese Thought" at Hebrew University
Prof. Fu Xiao-wei to establish the Center for Judaic & Chinese Studies at Sichuan International Studies University in Chongqing, which has held conferences, sponsored research and publication projects, and developed Sino-Judaic curricula
Prof. Fu Xiao-wei was awarded a second-year grant to continue support for the Center. Prof. Fu turned the SJI grant into a matching grant, and expanded grants from the Chinese government to grow the Center.
Prof. Jonathan Goldstein for the translation and publication of a Hebrew language version of his China and Israel, 1948-1998.
Mr. Richard Peritz for the production of videos on Jews and Jewish Studies in China.
Provided Financial Support for Jewish Studies Programs and Kaifeng Jews
SJI helped fund:
The Jewish school in Kaifeng
The Institute of Jewish Studies at Henan University
The Institute of Jewish Studies at Nanjing University
The Center for Jewish Studies Shanghai (Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences), The Center for Judaic & Chinese Studies at Sichuan International Studies University, which has become an annual allocation in the SJI budget
Kaifeng Jewish descendant Shi Lei, who had studied in Israel, was brought to the United States for a speaking tour.
In 2012, Rabbi Arnold Mark Belzer succeeded Rabbi Laytner as president. During his tenure, he accomplished the following:
Digitization of Kaifeng Jewish Manuscript Collection
At SJI's urging, the Hebrew Union College Klau Library digitized its Kaifeng Jewish manuscript collection and made it available both to Sino-Judaic scholars and the Kaifeng Jewish descendants.
Strengthened Connections with the Kaifeng Jewish Community
Work with the Kaifeng Jewish community intensified under Rabbi Belzer's presidency. SJI sent teachers of Judaism and Judaic history to Kaifeng to teach at the Jewish community school until the local government prohibited such activity.
Although the various Jewish Studies programs and scholars have grown less dependent on SJI’s support as their relationships with academic institutions abroad have developed, SJI continued to fund select programs and scholars. Grants were made to Amelia Allsopp, Kevin Ostoyich, and the Center for Judaic & Chinese Studies at Sichuan International Studies University.
In 2018, Rabbi Anson Laytner was re-elected president.
Iconic Jewish architectural landmarks dating to the early 1900s along the Bund in Shanghai.