How the Sino-Judaic Institute Began

For a number of years in the late 1970s, Michael Pollak had been tirelessly and thoroughly tracking down leads and references to the Kaifeng Jews, which resulted in 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.

Simultaneously, as China began to open up following the purging of the so-called “Gang of Four”, foreign visitors and journalists began to visit Kaifeng again for the first time since the mid-1950s. A number of people who became the Sino-Judaic Institute’s founders were among them. Prof. Al Dien went first in 1980 and was there twice in 1981.

He recalls that he had brought a copy of the map of Kaifeng that is in the front of Bishop White's book, which was from 1910. 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 late 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 troupe/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. Ron Kaye and his wife visited Kaifeng in 1981. 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 and took rubbings of them. While there, he also led a seder with some of the Jewish families.

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 the signal that he would like to communicate and that's how her long correspondence and connection with the Shi family began.

Rabbi Joshua Stampfer also 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, in Australia, 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.

Prof. Donald Leslie was one of the field’s foremost scholars and his faraway presence was crucial to SJI's beginnings. Leslie had studied directly under Joseph Needham (he was his protégé in fact) and, along with Prof. Al Dien, provided SJI with the academic expertise it needed, just as Art Rosen, then President of the National Committee on U.S. - China Relations, provided it with political savoir faire. Rosen had served with the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai shortly after WWII and he headed the National Committee for decades, overseeing it during the most exciting time in U.S.- China relations, beginning with his organization’s arranging for the first American ping pong team traveling to China while Nixon was in office.

Leo Gabow is considered by everyone to have been the primary moving spirit in the founding of SJI. Gabow was not an academic but someone who was 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, Leo 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.

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 U.S.A., 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.

On June 27th, 1985, an international group of scholars and activists gathered in Palo Alto, California to 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; Michael Pollak, vice-president; Rabbi Anson Laytner was elected secretary and editor of Points East; and Prof. Al Dien, treasurer. Prof. Louis Schwartz was elected honorary chairman. The founding board consisted of Dr. Wendy Abraham, Rabbi Arnold Mark Belzer, David Buxbaum (Shanghai), Mark Ejlenburg (Hong Kong), Helaine Fortgang, Seymour Fromer, Dr. Ron Kaye, Lawrence Kramer, Prof. Donald Leslie (Australia), Arthur Rosen, Rabbi Joshua Stampfer and counsel, Robert Grodsky.

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 visited Kaifeng in 1985 visited the 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 to gather 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, and will be open to the public in 2015.)

When Rabbi Marvin Tokayer led a Jewish tour group to China, they were in Xian and had chartered an aircraft to take them to Zhengzhou, the airport closest to Kaifeng. They checked in, the plane was there as were the pilot and crew, but then they sat in the airport waiting to board for two days. Finally, the authorities called in Rabbi Tokayer and said that the group would be arrested if they went to Kaifeng and instead flew the group to Canton for free. These events put a damper on SJI’s early activism and led to an initial focus on research and on other Jewish communities in China. Only in more recent years, with the further opening up of China, has SJI returned to the activism of its earliest days.

During Leo’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 its projects during this period:

Rabbi Anson Laytner took over from Prof. Dien in 2007. These were some of the things accomplished during his tenure:

In 2012, Rabbi Arnold Mark Belzer succeeded Rabbi Laytner as president.  Among early accomplishments during his tenure, SJI was able to convince the Hebrew Union College Klau Library to digitize its Kaifeng Jewish manuscript collection and make it available both to SJI scholars and the Kaifeng Jewish descendants.  Work with the Kaifeng Jewish community has intensified while, at the same time, the various Jewish Studies programs and scholars have grown less dependent on SJI’s support as their relationships with academic institutions abroad have developed.

List of Officers and Board Members

Founding Officers:

Founding Board:

March, 1990: new officers

July, 2007: new officers

Later (Managing) Board members:

2012 New Officers

New Managing Board

International Advisory Board: