Why did I leave the comfort of my home and family in Israel and fly to a country where I ever never been, didn’t know a soul, do not even speak the language, in order to assist with relief efforts without a real plan? That is a very difficult question to answer. To do so properly would probably take years of therapy! For whatever reason, I have always been drawn to try and help total strangers in the worst of times, and the disaster in the Philippines was no exception. But in addition to my own personality quirks, other factors – one in particular — compelled me to come here at this time. That is the Philippine’s history with the Jewish people.
Philippine’s History with the Jewish People
What has drawn me most to the Philippines – more than to any other prior tragedy – has been a communal sense of payback or “pay it forward” as a Jew.
During World War II, President Manuel L. Quezon and the people of the Philippines did what no other country had the moral or ethical courage to do – they opened their doors to 10,000 German and Austrian Jewish refugees. Ultimately they accepted 1300 Jewish refugees into their ranks. President Quezon condemned the Nazi persecution of our people – something that no other leader frankly had the guts to do at that point in history.
In 1940, President prophetically said, “It is my hope and indeed my expectations that the people of the Philippines will have in the future every reason to be glad when the time of need came, their country extended a hand of welcome.” It is now our turn to extend a hand to them in their own time of need. This, more than any other reason brought me here this week. While I will discuss in my forthcoming articles more of what I’ve seen (much of it quite painful) – in this piece I extend my praise and gratitude for the people in these islands – with particular gratitude to the very warm and welcoming Jewish community for their hospitality over Shabbat to all of us who were present.
Philippine’s Jewish Community Today
That spirit of acceptance continues today, as the Philippines maintain a small but thriving Jewish community. Its Sephardic Orthodox community numbers less than 500, but it is one that is highly observant and as mentioned welcoming to Jewish visitors from around the world – one that I enjoyed a wonderful Shabbat with engaging with locals as well as others visiting as myself.
Global visitors have always been welcome at Manila’s Beit Yaacov Synagogue or the Chabad House. About 100 families hold membership at the synagogue, and the congregation is active in everything from Sunday Torah and Hebrew classes to children’s Shabbat services. The synagogue has also traditionally hosted many of the area’s cultural events and lectures, and it is home to the largest library in all of southeast Asia.
For the vast majority of Filipinos who are not Jewish, that historical legacy of acceptance continues. From the taxi driver I described who praised the people of Israel to others I met along the way, I have been heartened to see that the Philippine’s respect for the Jewish people and the State of Israel has been passed to continual generations.
The Islands’ Natural Beauty
It seemed a particularly cruel trick of fate that one of the world’s most beautiful island countries was so devastated by the recent typhoon. The Philippines consist of over 7100 islands, and this Pacific archipelago has always drawn visitors who appreciate its natural beauty and great biodiversity.
Over 500 species of coral dot its shores, along with countless caves, lagoons, and teeming marine life – such as over 20,000 different varieties of fish! These remarkable coastlines have earned the Philippines the title of Asia’s diving capital. The country also attracts international bird watchers, as it is home to at least 200 indigenous species and a total of over 600 bird species. Along some islands, dolphin watching is also a frequent pastime.
In addition to its great biodiversity, the Philippines offers diverse landscapes and regions of stunning natural beauty. In addition to its seemingly limitless beaches, the Philippines also offer numerous mountain ranges and striking volcanoes. Its mountainsides are filled with dramatic waterfalls and hidden caves, and clouds cling mysteriously to its highest mountain peaks.
While many parts of the Philippines were relatively unscathed in the recent natural disaster, other areas are almost unrecognizable. Certainly, no scenic damage can compare with the loss of life and other human costs that have befallen parts of the Philippines – a number that sadly increases each day. But it is a sad irony that a country so renowned for its biodiversity and natural beauty should face such an ecological and geographical disaster. As someone who works in the travel industry, perhaps I focus on such issues more than most.
While the world has focused the past few days on the anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy – a time 50 years ago where it didn’t matter if you were Republican or Democrat; Black or White; Jew or Catholic – we mourned. Consequently, fifty years later, when natural tragedy has struck – it doesn’t matter whether we’re Hispanic or Native American; Christian or Muslim; American or Israeli – we must remember those who helped save others and learn from them.
And so, from its history to its strong Jewish culture to its threatened natural bounty, the Philippines drew me here to bear witness to both its suffering and its courage, and to offer my small contribution to its wonderful people – to serve as memory to not only the words but the action of President Quezon.