Gila Padernilla 88 298.
(photo credit: Atira Winchester)
Gila Padernilla, 46, attributes her long-standing love for Judaism to her Seventh Day Adventist grandmother. "She taught me the Old Testament as a child, kept some form of Shabbat," says Padernilla, and refrained from eating pork.
After putting her passion for Judaism on a back burner for two decades, Padernilla's love was reawakened and she decided to convert when she was 33. The decision triggered the beginning of her relationship with Israel. Thirteen years later, Padernilla, who was a certified public accountant in the Philippines, has become an Israeli Jew - "Finally, thanks to God," she says, beaming.
The last of 10 children, Padernilla was born to Catholic parents in the small town of Passi in the Philippines. She married at the age of 18, and gave birth to her son, Edward Paul, at 20. Soon after, she separated from her husband. Since the Philippines is a Catholic country, divorce wasn't an option. Padernilla waited seven years to annul her marriage formally. Meanwhile, she set up her accountancy business, became a tax inspector and taught in the evenings at the local university.
"I wanted to be independent, I didn't ask anyone for money," she says.
In 1993, while living in the city of Iloilo, she met Rabbi Haim Talmid, rabbi of the 1,000-strong Orthodox synagogue in Manila, through a friend who knew she was interested in Judaism. He started teaching her about the religion and encouraged her to convert, "but you can't convert in the Philippines," says Padernilla, "There's no Beit Din [rabbinical court]."
Together with Talmud, Padernilla started to plan her move to Israel. Even though she only wanted to move to Israel in order to convert, her entrance was contingent on a two-year work visa. "Thank God," she says, "within a month I got a visa."
She left her 12-year-old son at home with her niece.
Padernilla - then called Feustina Padernilla - received a work visa through a care-giving agency. She was assigned to a woman who needed 24 hour care, an arrangement that left Padernilla little time to invest in her conversion studies. In 1994 the woman died, leaving Padernilla both unemployed and an illegal alien.
Between 1994-2005 Padernilla was forced by the Israeli authorities to go back to the Philippines a number of times before her last, successful entry in 2005. Each time her visa ran out or she couldn't find employment she was deported. Even in October 2005 her return was fraught with complications: she was placed in a detention center for five days before her case was cleared.
"Everyone helped bail me out," she says, naming rabbis, among them Rabbi Moshe Klein, deputy head of the Conversion Authority, friends from all streams of Judaism and an Israeli lawyer who supported and sponsored her. "They made sure I came back and made it."
After over 13 years of on-off studying and residency in Israel, Padernilla was finally converted in February 2006 by Israel's Conversion Authority. She officially made aliya in May 2006 and receives a full basket of immigrant benefits.
Her name was chosen together with one of the families who took her under their wing. "They had a son, Gili, who died when he was five. They asked me to take on his name." Padernilla also liked the meaning of the name - joy.
Currently unemployed, Padernilla spends her mornings job hunting and her afternoons in ulpan.
"It's not easy," she says of her employment situation, "I don't care what I do, I just need a job."
In the evenings, Padernilla can be found on the computer, checking her business in the Philippines, surfing the Internet, writing e-mails and keeping in contact with my family. "When I first came it used to take a month and a half for letters to reach their destination. Now, my son texts me and says, 'open your computer and I'll show you photos of me and the family gathering from today.'"
She stopped going out in the evenings when she moved to Israel. "Maybe when I find permanent work, I'll start going out again."
Padernilla grew up speaking an Austronesian dialect called Ilonggo. She also speaks the national language of the Philippines, Filipino. She learned Spanish and English in school and is in the intermediate-level Hebrew class in her ulpan.
"I am an Orthodox Jew," says Padernilla. "I keep the kashrus and the Shabbat and dress modestly.
She prays that God will "touch" her son so that he too will convert, marry someone Jewish and give her Jewish grandchildren.
Of the tribulations she faced over her conversion, she only says, "All the hardship I pass, I don't remember it. It's a test, it's the work of the spirit."
Since 1997, Padernilla's base in Israel has been the same one-room apartment in Jerusalem's Kiryat Hayovel neighborhood. Her rabbi in the Philippines connected her with the landlord and arranged her accommodation. Now in his 80s, she helps him out with day-to-day tasks. In return, she lives rent-free with reduced-cost amenities.
Six months ago Padernilla submitted all her certificates and papers with the hope that she will be accepted to retrain as an accountant in Israel.
"My son is a successful businessman, he has people to clean his house for him. And here, that is what I do. I am the cleaner here."
Padernilla's greatest and most immediate concern is over housing. Her landlord may be selling her block, which will mean that she needs to start looking for rental accommodation. She wants to avoid selling her property and belongings in the Philippines in order to make ends meet here.
Among her friends Padernilla names rabbis and families who helped her through the conversion process. "They are mostly Israeli, one is American, some are Conservative... We are all one people," she says.
Padernilla insists she is not looking to remarry. "My marriage was not good; if I'm alone, I'm free. No one will tell me 'do this, don't do this.'"
"Anyway," she adds, "I am too old to make babies, so what for? If they had converted me earlier, then maybe, but now, what's the point? If I want friendship, I can make friends."
While she originally intended to move back to the Philippines, she now sees little reason. Her son is fully grown and her parents have passed away. Instead, she plans to stay in Israel, but hopes to travel extensively. Her eyes light up when she talks about the possibility.
"In the Philippines it was very hard to travel, but here it's easy." First on the list of destinations: America.
"The rest of my life," she declares without a trace of bitterness, "will be for me."
"They say life begins at 40. I'm ready to start over."
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