From Beijing to Jerusalem - Home among her people

Jews are believed to have settled in Kaifeng during the eighth century, or perhaps even earlier.

Abigail Windberg (photo credit: Courtesy)
Abigail Windberg
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘I moved to Israel because I am a Zionist,” says the speaker on the Skype video call. “The connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel is unbreakable.”
Inspirational words such as these would not seem unusual coming from a charismatic rabbi or teacher. But the fact that these powerful words were uttered by a petite, 21-year-old Chinese convert gives them added meaning.
Abigail Windberg was born in Dalian, a city of almost six million people in northeast China. The middle child in a family of three, she and her younger brother were considered “illegal” children, due to China’s birth control policy, which at the time permitted only one child per family (in 2016, the law was changed to allow two children per family). Abigail did not exist “officially” for the first two years of her life, until her parents were able to bribe government officials and receive an official ID number. Due to her unofficial status, Abigail could not attend public schools, and was sent to boarding schools from the age of five.
Her mother was a hotel manager and, because of her job, moved frequently to various cities. Abigail herself studied at boarding schools in various cities, including Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen.
When Abigail was first sent to boarding school, she was told by her mother not to eat pork and blood, which are staples of the Chinese diet. “When I asked why, she said, ‘It is a family tradition. We are Jewish.’”
Abigail’s mother’s family came from the Jewish community in Kaifeng. Jews are believed to have settled in Kaifeng during the eighth century, or perhaps even earlier. According to some accounts, the first Jewish settlers in the city were Sephardi merchants from Persia or Iraq. During the Yellow River flood of 1938, the family moved to Beijing.
Abigail learned English at boarding school, and became a baseball aficionado, due to the large number of Japanese and Korean students in her school.
After her parents divorced when she was 10, her father moved to Boston with her younger brother, and her sister studied at a boarding school in Switzerland, before attending university. When Abigail was not away at school, she spent most of her time living with her maternal grandparents.
After she completed high school, her parents decided that she should study at the University of Washington, in Seattle, major in computer science, and become an engineer.
Ever the dutiful Chinese daughter, Abigail agreed and went to the United States, but did not enjoy her studies. “I got totally lost in the first year,” she says.
Abigail decided to return to China, and worked with several start-ups, helping them develop applications, and meeting with investors. She earned a comfortable living from her work and invested her time and financial resources in building a women’s baseball team in China. She soon gave up on that dream, because of the close connection between sports and politics there. She felt lost and did not know what direction to take in life.
Attempting to raise her spirits, Abigail’s mother suggested that she attend a one-year volunteer program on an Israeli kibbutz.
“She thought it would be a good opportunity for me because I was always curious about my family’s story, so she thought it would be a good idea for me to come to Israel,” Abigail says.
ABIGAIL ARRIVED in Israel in March 2018, after she turned 18, and volunteered at Kibbutz Ein Gev, in northern Israel. Life was quiet for her at the kibbutz until the day that she read a story on Facebook about five Chinese girls from Kaifeng who had moved to Israel and converted, with the assistance of Shavei Israel. Founded and guided by Michael Freund, the organization locates lost and hidden Jews from around the world.
“Suddenly, everything became a clear line. I knew I must contact them.”
Abigail contacted Eran Barzilay, the director of Shavei Israel’s Kaifeng project, and she began developing a greater interest in Judaism. She attended religious services on the kibbutz and was invited to kibbutz residents’ homes for Shabbat meals.
Shavei Israel recommended that she continue her Jewish education at Nishmat’s English-language summer program, which the five Chinese girls had attended. Abigail says that the beginner’s program was amazing. She particularly enjoyed the classes in Jewish law. “After three weeks of studying in the summer program, I felt that I had found the right path of my future life.”
When the course ended, Abigail flew to China for a visit, before returning to Israel. She studied at Midreshet Be’erot Bat Ayin for three months, but felt it was a bit too “hassidic and hippy,” so she returned to Jerusalem to study at Machon Ora.
Abigail began the conversion process when she studied in Bat Ayin and continued at Machon Ora. She completed the conversion program two months ago and enjoyed meeting with the rabbis.
“It wasn’t difficult for me at all,” she says, “because I love it. I enjoy learning everything. Even in the meeting with the dayanim [rabbinical court judges], they didn’t ask me hard questions. I was a little bit disappointed. I wanted them to ask me more.”
Abigail lives in Jerusalem, and her roommate is one of the original five converts from Kaifeng. She joined Garin Tzabar, the organization that helps and supports lone soldiers who have made aliyah, and plans on entering the IDF in September.
Abigail says that she was inspired by the example set by the late Ari Fuld, who was murdered in Gush Etzion, minutes from where she studied in Bat Ayin. “Ari protected others from the terrorist, and I want to continue his work to protect the people and the land I love so much.”
As for her future in Israel after the IDF, Abigail says, “I hope I can do more and contribute to Israeli society. Because of the coronavirus, I saw some of the darker parts of Israeli society, and it could be better. Everything could be working better. I want to be a lawyer to help Israel, and to help Asian Israelis.”
She adds that foreign workers in Israel are a part of society and need to have their rights protected. She also wants to study international relations, because “Israel needs more allies than enemies, and it’s important to have a good relationship with China.”
Abigail says that she sometimes feels lonely in a spiritual sense, because her family doesn’t understand why she made these decisions. However, she has made many new friends here in Israel who share her Zionist values, and who are anxious to start their new lives in Israel.
Being Chinese, she has been subject to some slurs and wayward glances from Israelis. “It’s a bit hard for me,” she admits. “I saw the attitudes of people when they saw my face.”
Nevertheless, she says that coming to Israel is the best decision that she has made in her life. “My life in China and the United States was not always that happy. There was a lot of stress. Here in Israel, every day I appreciate and am grateful for a new life, and I really have hope for the future of my life here.”
When asked to discuss some of the positive aspects of life in Israel over her native China, she points to the Israeli trait of chutzpah, as well as the Jewish penchant for asking questions. “When I was in school, I was taught not to ask questions. Every time I asked a question, the teacher said, ‘Don’t ask it again, because you are wasting everyone’s time.’ Here in Israel, in midrasha, the rabbi will ask you if you have any more questions. I really love it and enjoy it.”
Abigail Windberg has found a home for herself in Israel and has perhaps answered her most important question – that of her identity. “I came from a country that didn’t allow me to exist in this world, but Israel said to me, ‘You are a member of my people.’”