I sometimes make bullet lists when abroad but singing “Lecha Dodi” on a Friday night with about 30 people on the island of Palawan, western Philippines had never seriously entered the fray. Yet, that is where I found an incredible welcome and a jovial Shabbat atmosphere at a Chabad House in the northern town of El Nido, one of six Chabad centers across the Philippines.
Sharing a whiskey l’chayim with dozens of Israelis, French and Brazilian Jews and this British oleh, Jerusalem-born Dovi Hershkop, who runs the center with two colleagues from the main Chabad yeshivah in Brooklyn. They are doing so in the absence of Chabad Rabbi Moyshi Notik, who returned to Israel briefly as his wife gave birth.
Dovi elaborated on both the joys and challenges. “We just had over 100 people here celebrating Purim, the Arak for tonight’s Shabbat is left over from that and we are expecting 200 people for our Seder. The biggest challenge is bringing in the matzah, usually from Israel or the United States. With no farms on this part of the island, there is very little in the way of milk and any chicken or meat has to be flown in from the capital Manila. We have to sort everything for ourselves and from scratch.”
Fourteen times bigger than Israel and with a population of over 110 million, the Philippines has always punched its weight as a hospitable nation for the Jewish community going back to the time of the Spanish Inquisition.
It was only after World War I, when many Jewish refugees arrived from Russia to escape persecution, that the Jewish community in the Philippines was formally organized. In 1922, the community built the first Synagogue in Manila named Temple Emil. By the early 1930s, the Jewish community of Manila numbered around 500 people.
In the 1940s, as Nazi atrocities grew in Europe and at the request of Manila’s Jewish community, the Philippine government issued visas. While many countries were turning away Jewish refugees, this small tropical island nation not yet even yet fully independent from the US was willing to absorb them.
Ultimately, more than 1,200 Jews managed to find their way to the Philippines before the islands were invaded and occupied by Japan, in 1942. In honor of this heroic act, the Open Doors Monument was erected in the Rishon Lezion Holocaust Memorial Park, in 2009.
DURING THE war, the synagogue in Manila was destroyed and eventually moved to a new location in the suburb of Makati, where I met Manila-born Salomon Malca, President of the Synagogue since 2018 and a member of the synagogue in 1956. He showed me around this standalone complex, housing a large function room, a spacious kosher kitchen, a library, classrooms, a mikveh and offices. The community owns a Jewish cemetery, as well, and today, it is home to approximately 85 close families.
The Philippines and Israel
The Philippines was among the 33 countries that supported the establishment of Israel and the only Asian country that voted for the resolution. Full diplomatic relations between the two countries were realized in 1958, with embassies opening in 1962.
This year marked 65 years of friendship and in the past 12 months alone, the two nations signed various trade deals, with the Philippine-Israel Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement signed in June 2022, to promote investments in water management, agriculture, cybersecurity, defense industry, smart transportation, and manufacturing and diamond industry development.
Israel’s Ambassador to Manila, Ilan Fluss, sees the field of innovation as an area the two countries could further develop. “Israeli companies are here [and] seeing a lot of interest. We’re trying to get more Philippine companies to come to Israel to identify opportunities in Israel because the two economies complement each other,” Mr. Fluss said. Bilateral trade in goods between the Philippines and Israel was $347 million (NIS 1.3 billion) in 2022.
While technology may well be increasingly exchanged in the coming years, it is the talent of the two nations where real bonds are forged. In Israel today, there is much warmth and respect for the approximately 30,000 Filipino caregivers working in the country.
In my eight years in Israel, one of the most reliably moving sights is seeing how devoted the Filipino caregivers are to Israel’s elderly, sick and Holocaust survivors, helping them in and out of wheelchairs and on and off buses when they are not bravely meandering through Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station’s lower floors, dubbed “Little Manila,” enjoying a well-deserved slice of home.
Before heading home for Passover, I popped into the Happiness Beach Bar. “Wait, do you have humshuka?” I asked. “Yes, a hummus-shakshuka mix. The owner is Israeli,” came the reply of the Filipino waiter, symbolizing the warmth and hospitality of this Southeast Asian country: The tiniest speck of a Jewish community but a giant heart.
For more information or to register for the Seder, visit: www.chabad.ph/about_us.