CULTURE

How Jews secretly found a home in the Philippines

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The Jewish synagogue in the Philippines is a melting pot of Israelis, North Americans, and Filipinos, a close-knit community of Jews that gather in a simple, serene hall. Pictured above is an authentic Torah scroll that can be found in the synagogue. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Enamored by the worlds of kings and prophets rooted in the Hebrew Bible, Yehudah*, 28, was curious about the Jewish faith ever since he was a child. He grew even more intrigued when he learned that the Israel of the ancient world is still alive today, right there at the center of the world map — proof, to him, that the God those old prophets proclaimed stayed faithful to His promises. He wanted to know this God. He wanted to be close to Him, just as the Israelites were.

But for a young Filipino born into a Christian family in a predominantly Catholic country, learning the faith on his own was not easy.

He did not have the money or a passport to fly to Israel. He could not find all the rules and prayers to follow, despite spending hours reading about Judaism in local bookstores and on the then scant sources of the Internet. He felt becoming a Jew was close to impossible.

A frustrated teenager, Yehudah told God, “If You won't let me come closer, then I will run my life my own way.”

And so he did. In college, he stopped praying, save for the few times he was desperate for help or angry with God. When he joined the workforce, he poured himself into a demanding job at a local NGO, hoping that this identity as a young, secular professional working hard to serve his country would give his life meaning. But, alas, he found himself still yearning for purpose.

By the time he turned 26, it was time for Yehudah to accept what he had long known. He was called to be a Jew.

Inside the Beit Yaacov Synagogue, the only synagogue in the Philippines located at Salcedo Village in Makati City. Photo by JL JAVIER

A Filipino story

On Nov. 9 and 10, 1938, Nazi mobs destroyed hundreds of synagogues, attacked thousands of Jewish-owned stores, and arrested roughly 30,000 Jews in Germany. This was the Kristallnacht, also known as the Night of the Broken Glass — alluding to the shards of glass windows that littered the streets of Germany in its aftermath.

Less than two weeks later, 2,000 Filipinos filled the fields of the Ateneo de Manila campus in Intramuros, protesting against the violence of Kristallnacht. Though a small Jewish community had been living in Manila at the time, Jews did not spearhead this protest. It was led by Senator Quintin Paredes and supported by Catholic and Protestant leaders and local civic groups.

“How they did it, why they did it, how they knew, why they even cared was an amazing thing,” says Lee Blumenthal, executive director of the Jewish Association of the Philippines. 

While other countries had taken in Jews of their own nationalities, the Philippines was “the only country in the world that went out to save Jews that were not their own.”

When anti-Semitic policies began to intensify in Europe and many countries refused the entry of Jews in the 1930s, the Philippine government, together with the American High Commissioner Paul McNutt and members of Manila’s Jewish community, such as cigar manufacturers the Frieder brothers, devised a careful plan to save as many Jews as they could. Working around difficult U.S. immigration laws at a time when the Philippines was still a U.S. colony, the group found a way to take in Jewish professionals — doctors, engineers, accountants — who would appear to benefit the Philippine economy.

According to Blumenthal, while other countries had taken in Jews of their own nationalities, the Philippines was “the only country in the world that went out to save Jews that were not their own.”

Yet, eight decades since Manuel Quezon opened the doors of the Philippines to 1,300 Jewish refugees escaping the Holocaust in Europe, many Filipinos are only learning about the radical story binding Jews and Filipinos today. This is in part caused by brave efforts in recent history to tell this story. From the book “Escape to Manila” (2003), written by Jewish refugee Frank Ephraim, to the recently released award-winning movie “Quezon’s Game,” helmed by the British-Jewish director Matthew Rosen, much of these stories have been told by Jews themselves.

While Filipinos may tend to forget, Jews do not. Jews remember, and they are proud to tell us that this is our story to claim.

“This is a Philippine story, this is not a Jewish story. Filipinos did this,” says Blumenthal. “And we want to give back.”

Two days after Typhoon Yolanda hit the Philippines in 2013 and devastated thousands of lives and homes, Blumenthal received an urgent phone call from a man named Danny Pins, who was calling from Israel. He said he was with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and he wanted to help. He wanted to come to the Philippines and bring in a 150-person medical team and supplies of typhoon relief. He said this was very important to him: his own mother was one of those who found a home in the Philippines when the rest of the world closed its doors.

Painted on the ceiling of the synagogue are the Twelve Tribes of Israel and the Seven Gates to Jerusalem. Photo by JL JAVIER

Finding freedom in Jewish spirituality

It took Yehudah almost two years until he finally became a full-fledged Jew.

Soon after he made that choice to dive in, he contacted the rabbi leading the only synagogue in the country, entered their house of worship as a non-Jew, and after two interviews, joined a class on the basics of Judaism for conversion candidates.

Spending that time studying the rules and prayers he longed to learn as a child, Yehudah found freedom in the path paved by the Torah, also known as the Five Books of Moses, or the Jewish law — a law that shaped world civilization through both Christianity and Islam. Jews are also encouraged to question these laws.

Yehudah says that the Talmud, the text describing the Jewish law, is filled with arguments among rabbis on how to apply Judaism to daily life. They are taught to think, to question why God wants things done a certain way.

“Engaging in the same process with my conversion classmates and our rabbi, I found that the Torah's rules were not instituted haphazardly — you can see traces of love, compassion, and logic.”

Yehudah fell in love with the law along with the rituals, which he describes as simple yet profound.

Before and after partaking of any food, for instance, Jews recite short prayers. Yehudah says that these prayers help him remember that everything continues to exist only because of Hashem, and that even something as mundane as drinking water is considered a part of your life’s mission.

“And that,” he adds, “you should always be grateful to anyone for whatever help they give you.”

Yehudah says that the Talmud, the text describing the Jewish law, is filled with arguments among rabbis on how to apply Judaism to daily life. They are taught to think, to question why God wants things done a certain way. Photo by JL JAVIER

A home within a home

Just as their religion teaches, Jews who live in the Philippines today remain eternally grateful.

“In my 30 years living in this country, I have never faced anti-Semitism,” Blumenthal says with conviction and pride. “That is a wonderful thing. We feel accepted, and part of the country.”

When he began to transition into following the laws that govern the daily life of a Jew, Yehudah echoes a similar reception from his fellow Filipinos.

He recalls how his boss let him skip work on Saturdays so that he can practice keeping the Shabbat, the Jewish holy day of rest. His parents have long accepted that he will no longer be going back to church, and even help him prepare kosher food — food he is fit to eat based on Jewish law.

“When I walk through the streets of Makati wearing my kippah, a head covering symbolizing my submission to Hashem's will, people don't point and stare — unlike in Europe, where wearing a kippah might be dangerous.”

And just as Filipinos welcomed Jews with open arms, so did the Jews welcome Yehudah with warmth. A melting pot of Israelis, North Americans, and Filipinos, the close-knit community of Jews that gather in a simple, serene synagogue at the heart of Makati City never made Yehudah and his fellow converts feel like an outsider.

“I found that many people wanted to talk to me, maybe inspired by someone choosing the faith that they were born into.”

Today, Yehudah no longer feels conflicted between these two worlds. Instead, he considers himself lucky to be an ambassador of both. When he is with Israeli or American Jews, he does his best to represent the Filipino as helpful, respectful, and hard working. Recognizing that he may be the only Jew that many Filipinos would ever encounter, he hopes to leave the impression of someone who is trustworthy and ethically responsible, of someone who loves to learn.

“My heart may have been formed by Hashem in Jerusalem, the center of the world, but the blood that runs through it is from Manila.”

Yehudah may have felt alone as a child, but now he proudly embraces his unique identity. He is a Jew. He is a Filipino. He says he is a private man, but he has a story to tell — one that began many years before he was born; one that did not discriminate against religion or race; one that is profoundly, radically human.

Living proof that the story between Filipinos and Jews remains unfinished, Yehudah is happy to speak for his people today.

He says, in a sense, he did not convert. He only went home.

*Name has been changed upon the request of the interviewee. Yehudah, the son of Jacob and Leah, means “to thank” in Hebrew.