Being a Rabbi in the only Jewish synagogue and community center in Manila brings many challenges, but it also provides gratification in knowing how different and special our community is. Our community is very united, celebrating together, mourning together, and sincerely caring for any Jew in the country.
We follow the Sephardic tradition but there are lots of members that come from different backgrounds and levels of observance. This gives a great feeling of tolerance and acceptance to members and visitors.
When my family and I arrived to Manila in September 2004 after my rabbinic ordination at Midrash Sephardi Yeshiva (Shehebar Sephardic Center) in Jerusalem, the community had about 30 member families. It was a struggle to complete a minyan on Shabbat. Te community was depleting in numbers as the manufacturing industry was moving to China, and some members thought that our community was dying.
The presence of the Jews in the Philippines dates back to the Inquisition, but it was only until after World War I, when many Jewish refugees arrived from Russia to escape persecution, that the Jewish community in 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, at the request of the Jewish community in Manila, the government issued visas and permitted more than a thousand European Jews to enter the Philippines and escape the war in Europe.
During World War II, the Philippines was under the Japanese occupation and the synagogue in Manila was eventually destroyed due to all the fighting. After the war, while the synagogue was being rebuilt, many Jews left the Philippines for Israel or the United States and the community shrunk.
In 1982, the synagogue was moved to its new location in Makati City. Now, it is part of a beautiful stand alone complex that houses a large function room, a spacious kosher kitchen, a library, classrooms, a mikveh and offices. The community owns a Jewish cemetery as well.
Despite the challenges, we continued having Friday night services, followed by Kiddush in our house, where we would share a Shabbat meal with seven to 15 people. On Saturday mornings we would have prayers with minyan and a beautiful lunch with about 40 people.
After almost eight years, the community has grown, our membership has almost tripled and we now have more visitors. The Friday night meals that we used to host at our home were moved to the Social Hall because of the increase in the number of people coming that now ranges between 40 to 50 at night and 80 to 100 in the morning. With the help and support of the community, we have established a minyan on Mondays, Thursdays, Rosh Hodesh, Holidays, Shabbat and any other time that we have a special occasion like a Brit Milah, burial, wedding, etc.
We now have weekly Monday and Thursday night adult lessons, Bar Mitzvah and Sunday classes for children in Hebrew and Torah, men and women's lessons on Shabbat, summer camps, additional lectures and other religious and/or cultural events.
Since I am also a shohet, the community in the Philippines has the benefit of being the only community with its own production of Halak Bet Yosef beef, veal, lamb and chicken in South East Asia. We also supervise and work with a farm in Batangas to maintain milk production and a supply of different kinds of kosher cheese. All meals served in the synagogue are strictly kosher. We also cater for events and provide take-out meals, sometimes preparing 600 meals a week.
At present, we are working on a number of plans, such as the renovation of the mikveh to serve better the needs of our increasing number of women and a Jewish school in the near future.
Working with the community has been a great learning experience and we hope to continue to be blessed with the opportunity to strengthen Jewish education, values and identity.
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