American academics meet a Jew from Kaifeng

American academics meet a Jew from Kaifeng

The Faculty Fellowship Program in Israel is a competitive academic fellowship that brings approximately 35 US full-time university and college faculty members to Israel for an intensive 12 day trip in which they travel from the Golan Heights to Kibbutz Ketura.

The Program seeks to link scholars from diverse disciplines with their Israeli counterparts at major institutions for the purpose of initiating exchanges and collaborations, as well as meeting Israeli’s from many aspects of Israeli society.

Participants gain a deeper awareness of the many challenges faced by the country and the creativity, spirit and ingenuity that Israelis bring to tackling these issues.

In the past we have had Shavei Israel staff members join the group at their Shabbat dinner and speak about the amazing communities we work with such as the Bnei Menashe and the Jews of Kaifeng. Each time, the participants are excited to hear about Shavei’s work, and wish for more, particularly to have the opportunity to meet some of the people we work with. 

In this latest program, we were able to deliver. 

At their Shabbat dinner this time we arranged a special guest; Avigail Windberg, one of the Kaifeng Jews who we’ve assisted, who made aliyah in December 2020. She currently is an IDF combat soldier in Artillery unit and we are very proud of her accomplishments. 

The Kaifeng Jews are one of the older communities we work with. The first Jews arrived in Kaifeng, one of the capitals of imperial China, over a thousand years ago, when Jewish merchants from Persia settled in the area.

At its height, in the Middle Ages, Kaifeng’s Jewish community numbered as many as 5,000 people, with rabbis, synagogues and various communal institutions.

But assimilation eventually began to take its toll. The last rabbi of Kaifeng died two centuries ago, and by the middle of the 19th century, the community was forced to sell the synagogue, Torah scrolls and its other remaining assets.

Until today, however, there are between 500 and 1,000 identifiable descendants of the Jewish community, and in recent years an awakening has been taking place among them, as increasing numbers of young Kaifeng Jews seek to reclaim their heritage.

Avigail, one of those young Kaifeng Jews, was the star of the Shabbat dinner. She gave the background of the Kaifeng Jews, told her story, and spoke about their heritage and culture. She also spoke about what a ‘lone soldier’ is, spoke about her Jewish identity, and spoke about China. The professors she sat with really connected with her, and they all so enjoyed the meeting and learning so much from her. 

We’re looking forward to the next round of the Faculty Fellowship Program and we will be sure to bring another special guest!