(February 24, 2013 / JNS)
After two centuries of slow decline, the Kaifeng Jews of Central China, who now number only in the hundreds, are again struggling to revive their community. Credit this to a moderately more open Chinese society, the Internet, and the intermittent presence of visiting, knowledgeable Western Jews. And, as in past centuries, Christian missionaries are also present, hoping to redirect the Kaifeng Jews along Christian paths.
The chief player in the endeavor to convert the Kaifeng Jews is an American Judeo-Christian named Timothy Lerner, who founded the first Jewish school set up in Kaifeng in modern times.
After studying in China in 2000, Lerner traveled to Kaifeng to open the Yiceleye (Israelite) School, instructing the Jewish descendants in Hebrew and gathering those interested for Shabbat dinners and festival celebrations.
In addition, Lerner was able to arrange for a number of young Kaifeng Jews to receive scholarships to live and study in Israel with the help of the Israel-based Shavei Israel, an organization dedicated to returning “lost Jews” to the Jewish homeland—a Zionist mission that coincides with that of the Judeo-Christians and their Christian supporters, who also seek the return of all Jews to the Land of Israel. Shavei Israel is neither a Christian nor a Judeo-Christian organization, although it works with Christian groups to accomplish its own ends.
Almost immediately, suspicions were aroused among some of the Kaifeng Jews about Lerner’s intentions. Shi Lei, the first Kaifeng Jew ever to study in Israel, both at Bar Ilan University and at a Jerusalem yeshiva, was the first to sound the alarm. He blames Lerner for proselytizing the still Jewishly uneducated and somewhat naïve community.
However, in 2004, Israeli Michael Freund, head of Shavei Israel, and two Orthodox Israeli rabbis, Shlomo Riskin, chief rabbi of Efrat, and Eliyahu Birnbaum, a representative of the Israeli Ministry of Religions, led a delegation to visit Kaifeng and found no evidence of proselytizing materials or activities at the school. When I visited Kaifeng in 2009 as president of the Sino-Judaic Institute, I likewise saw nothing that would raise my suspicions.
But Lerner, who remained in Kaifeng for about two years, had his visa revoked by the Chinese government for evangelizing and was expelled from the country.
Following Lerner’s expulsion, Zohar Milchgrub, an Israeli Chinese Studies major, visited Kaifeng on the recommendation of his professor and remained there to teach Hebrew for several months at the Yiceleye School. When Milchgrub left, a young American Jew, Eric Rothberg, took his place. While working there for a year, Rothberg uncovered troubling information about Lerner. After finding a “Jesus prayer” at the school, he became distraught with Lerner’s continuing influence and convinced a large segment of the community to leave and form its own school, Beit HaTikvah.
Although the Sino-Judaic Institute, Kulanu and other Jewish groups transferred their support to the new school, Lerner’s school continued to flourish with the support of Hong Kong Christians.
I believe Lerner’s ability to get young Kaifeng Jews to Israel is the reason for his ongoing influence there. Kaifeng Jews want their young people to go to Israel to study and/or to make aliyah because both are a means for economic advancement, opportunities for which are lacking in Kaifeng. Lerner, both through his evangelical Christian associations in Europe and Judeo-Christian connections in Israel, as well as his links with the well-intentioned Shavei Israel, has the proven ability to make this happen. In my estimation, his ability to get young Jews to Israel accounts for the draw of Lerner’s school and contributes to the continued presence and influence of Christian missionaries in Kaifeng.
Rothberg, who now serves on the Sino-Judaic Institute Board of Directors, believes that the only way to eliminate Christian influence in the community is to fully support the community’s wishes to send their children to Israel and also to support the Beit HaTikvah School as an alternative to the Judeo-Christian Yiceleye School.
According to Bob Davis, in an August 2011 Wall Street Journal article, Lerner says he set up the “Kaifeng Israel School” to help Kaifeng Jews “learn the Jewish lifestyle” and to move to Israel. Lerner “says he doesn’t try to convince anyone to follow his religious beliefs,” according to the Journal. Lerner can easily connect the Kaifeng Jews in Israel with one of the estimated 120 Judeo-Christian congregations, comprising some 10,000-15,000 believers, which operate there.
So here is the conundrum: Lerner has done good work in Kaifeng. He opened the first Jewish school there and taught Kaifeng Jews basic Hebrew, Jewish history and Jewish culture. He helped send a number of young Kaifeng Jews to Israel, where they remain—either converted to traditional Judaism, or still learning about it. But I believe there is enough evidence to suspect that conversion is his ultimate goal, just as it has been with other Christian missionaries in the past.
Here in the U.S., Lerner maintains a website for his Kaifeng activities, the Association of Kaifeng Jews (http://www.theakj.org/). According to the website, “the Association of Kaifeng Jews (AKJ) is a not-for-profit, nondenominational 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to assisting the Jews of Kaifeng, China.” It claims to be “the only organization solely dedicated to assisting the Kaifeng Jewish community.” Nowhere is Lerner’s Christian theology on display.
It is time for Lerner to publicly discuss his intentions in Kaifeng, so that the Kaifeng Jews can at least make an informed choice.
The Beit HaTikvah school probably represents the best and final chance for the Kaifeng Jews to connect authentically with their Jewish heritage. Besides helping to fund the facility, the Sino-Judaic Institute and Kulanu also provide online instruction in Chinese and English on a variety of Jewish subjects, and Shavei Israel has enabled young Israelis to teach in Kaifeng for months at a time.
But more help is needed. It is crucial that a Chinese/English/Hebrew speaking teacher and community organizer be hired and placed in Kaifeng. The presence of this individual could transform the situation in Kaifeng, simultaneously curtailing the influence of Christian missionaries and providing the impetus for a revival of a real Jewish community there.
The Kaifeng Jews have clung to their Jewish identity for centuries. Now they are experiencing a fragile rebirth as China has opened up. It is incumbent on Israeli and Diaspora Jews to help them reconnect with their all-but-vanished heritage. Together we can make a real difference.