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.
The late 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.
In December of 1984, he received a letter from Prof. Louis Schwartz who was spending an academic year teaching in Beijing. With Gabow’s encouragement, Schwartz and David C. Buxbaum, a bilingual Shanghai-based lawyer, travelled to Kaifeng, made contact with the Jewish descendants there as well as various local officials and scholars. After Louis Schwartz returned from China, he remained in touch with Leo Gabow and other scholars and activists.
Through Gabow's organizing efforts, on June 27th, 1985, an international group of scholars and activists gathered in Palo Alto, California to establish the Sino-Judaic Institute.
Leo Gabow was elected president; 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. Ron Kaye, Lawrence Kramer, Prof. Donald Leslie (Australia), Arthur Rosen, Rabbi Joshua Stampfer and counsel, Robert Grodsky.
Since then, the Sino-Judaic Institute has functioned as the only NGO devoted solely to the study of Jewish life in China. Although the focii of our work has shifted over the decades, the purpose remains fairly constant.
Our objectives are:
a) The study of the ancient Jewish community of Kaifeng, where Jews have been living now for over a millennium, and assisting the Kaifeng Jewish descendants to reconnect with their cultural heritage as appropriate.
b) Providing grants to scholars, authors, filmmakers and others engaged in the study of Jewish life in Shanghai, Harbin, Tianjin, Hong Kong and elsewhere in the 19th and 20th centuries.
c) The support of Jewish Studies programs in China and fostering scholarship in this field.
d) Working cooperatively with scholars and students in Jewish Studies and Chinese Studies programs around the world, and with other NGOs on Sino-Jewish subjects.
e) Engagement with the contemporary Jewish communities in China on matters of mutual interest.