A kosher lunch at Beit Yaacov Synagogue

HISTORY MATTERS - Todd Sales Lucero - The Freeman

I was in Manila on 15th December to meet Lee, Operation Benjamin's country manager, and discuss my planned book on the history of Jews in the Philippines and Filipino families of Jewish heritage. He invited me to have lunch at the Beit Yaacov Synagogue, which I’ve already visited early this year after a marker replacement activity I was invited to at the American Cemetery in Taguig.

Beit Yaacov is a Sephardic Synagogue, Sephardic being one of the two classifications of modern Jews. Sephardic Jews are from the Iberian Peninsula, derived from the Hebrew word Sefarad meaning “Hispania” or “Iberia”, while the Ashkenazim are from Central Europe, primarily Germany, and Ashkenaz means “Germany” in Hebrew. The Ashkenazim differ in their pronunciation of Hebrew, in cultural traditions, in synagogue cantillation (chanting), their widespread use of Yiddish, and in synagogue liturgy. Despite these, prayers are almost identical with a few minor differences and the synagogue layout may vary. However, Ashkenazi Jews can and do attend Sephardic synagogues, and vice-versa.

In fact, in the Philippines, the first Jewish synagogue, Temple Emil, was an Ashkenazi synagogue, but naturally the Jewish community in Manila, regardless of their group, worshipped here and celebrated Jewish high holidays together. Temple Emil was completely devastated in World War II but was rebuilt after the war and renamed Beit Yaacov. In recognition of the first temple, the current synagogue’s social hall was named Bachrach Hall after Emil Bachrach, a philanthropic Jewish businessman in Manila who was a major contributor to the building of Temple Emil. In 1982, the synagogue was moved from Taft Avenue to Makati, where it stands today.

Beit Yaacov is the only synagogue in the Philippines and caters to a small but active Jewish community living here Philippines permanently, or those temporarily stationed here due to government or other work-related reasons. It has the largest Jewish library in Southeast Asia and serves as the headquarters of the Jewish Association of the Philippines. For our lunch, we were served kosher salmon, as all meals there are strictly kosher and prepared in two fully-equipped kosher kitchens. Kosher is the Torah-mandated guide for what and how Jews eat, including only using kosher meat and keeping meat and dairy separate.

Before I left, Lee showed me two gifts given to the Jewish Community of the Philippines; a beautiful Bezalel from then Foreign Affairs minister Golda Meir when she visited the Philippines in 1962, and a menorah from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) contingent that came to the Philippines to help after typhoon Yolanda. The IDF, with the Joint Jewish Distribution Committee (JDC), provided food, shelter, clean water, and sanitation to victims of Yolanda. The JDC helped raise more than $1.3 million, assisted in search and rescue, helped in the reconstruction and in the restoration of water supply, and provided medical assistance to thousands. Lee also said the IDF with the Jewish community in the Philippines went as far as Bogo and in other devastated sites in the Visayas to help in the rescue and reconstruction process.

Before I was contracted by Operation Benjamin to work for them as a genealogist, I never personally knew anyone of the Jewish faith. While I, like most of humanity, fervently hope and pray for the conflict in Gaza to end, I also strongly believe that terrorist groups like Hamas should be eradicated permanently before there could be a true ceasefire. And yes, I believe the people in Gaza and the West Bank have the right to their own territory, equally like the right of the Jewish people to their own land, and their right to defend this land. Perhaps my beliefs are shaped by the historical relationship between the Filipinos and the Jewish people.

To prepare for my visit to the synagogue, I ordered books on Jewish and Palestinian history, wanting to read expert works on the Jewish diaspora and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. All were delivered except for a memoir by a Jewish refugee in the Philippines, Frank Ephraim. When I met Lee, he gifted me with the same book that Amazon said was probably lost! Of all the books that Lee would give me, it would be the same one I never got. The book I ordered got lost so a Jewish friend could give it to me. What are the odds of that?

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