THE BLOG
11/12/2013 10:24 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Standing in Solidarity with the Filipino American Community

Last Sunday, I went to a Filipino Church. Why would an Orthodox rabbi and his family go to church on a Sunday morning? The answer is simple: in times of crisis we must cross faith-based and ideological divides to foster human solidarity and love. At the Filipino-American church I was privileged to meet Pastor Joel Padilla, who preached and prayed for the hundreds of thousands of victims and mourners living through this horror in the Philippines. While listening to Pastor Padilla I thought about those victims who had lost family members, homes, all of their belongings. I thought about those victims who are soaking wet, injured, and seeking refuge for their surviving children. Where will all these people turn? The thoughts pained me as I grieved with community members in Pastor Padilla's church.

Sunday also marked 75 years since Kristallnacht. I wasn't sure how to engage the solemn occasion in a meaningful way. Somehow, standing with others who were mourning felt most appropriate. In a world full of so much darkness, we desperately need collective acts of light to heal the world. This is ever more pertinent with Chanukah nearly here. As I stood with my community in mourning I tried to prepare my heart and soul to kindle and disseminate some illumination, some contribution of light to a world all too frequently plagued with darkness and sorrow.

Consider the words of Rabbi Yitz Greenberg:

The only way to wholeness is to heal the world and to work to take the poison out of absolutism without eroding all values and truth in the process. Post-Shoah (Post-Holocaust), the yearning for perfecting finitude, properly harnessed, can fuel the drive for tikkun olam (mending the world), politically and economically as well as religiously and philosophically, (Theology after the Shoah).

To some people, the Philippines is the nation that invented the yo-yo, and is famously noted for its colorful jitneys that serve as mass transportation in large cities such as Manila. However, there are many features of this beautiful land and its history that bear witness to what President Barack Obama termed the "incredible resiliency" of the Filipino people.

Typhoon Haiyan (known as Yolanda to Filipinos) hit the island of Leyte with sustained winds of nearly 200 miles per hour and gusts up to 235 miles per hour (the equivalent of a category 5 hurricane, and possibly the highest winds ever recorded in the Philippines), and tidal surges that eyewitnesses claimed were as high as trees (nearly 20 feet tall). This super typhoon extended well beyond 1,000 miles in diameter. In short, its ferocity, magnitude, and impact easily surpassed Hurricane Sandy, the deadly storm that hit the east coast last year, and had wind speeds greater than what the gulf experienced during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The Philippines, with a population of 97 million, are hit by about 20 typhoons annually, but never one of this magnitude. The hardest hit location was the Leyte city of Tacloban (the city where the Fillipino government was restored in 1944 when the United States liberated the islands from the Japanese). Current estimates are that over 10,000 of its 220,000 residents were killed during the typhoon. The airport and telephone lines were knocked out, and it has taken days for relief efforts to reach the area, so it is still difficult to accurately assess the damage.

Super typhoon Haiyan is unique in that the destruction and deaths were not caused by the usual accumulation of hours of severe torrential rain that leads to mudslides and river flooding. The storm surge caused by Haiyan came rapidly, and the destruction and carnage was similar to that normally associated with a tsunami. Photos of the aftermath show wide swaths of incredible devastation and even a cargo ship that had been swept ashore, reminiscent of the Japanese tsunami of 2011.

Describing the situation around Tacloban, Defense Minister Voltaire Gazmin said: "There is no power, no water, nothing. People are desperate." Unfortunately, since no one has anything, people tend to grab anything and everything they can, from the few remaining stores or from relief convoys that may be sending materials to other afflicted areas. President Obama has offered American military help in bringing in relief supplies and in aiding search and rescue operations, but the immediate need is still great.

While Tacloban has garnered the most attention, people have noted that there are many fishing communities to the north that border the seafront, and that no reports had been received from any of these areas. There is great concern that these communities were completely destroyed. Symbolically, a huge tree in Mabolo that had withstood every typhoon to strike the area for more than 100 years was blown over in this typhoon.

The history of the Philippines has at times mirrored the fury of its typhoons, with various powers vying for control. Islam was introduced to the southern area of the Philippines in the 14th century, and in the 16th century the Spanish conquered the islands, naming them after the Spanish King Philip II. Later, the United States seized the Philippines from Spain in the Spanish-American War of 1898, after which it fought the Filipinos for several years in a guerrilla war. As the Philippines prepared for independence, the Japanese invaded the islands in 1941. The Japanese brutalized the Filipino people during their reign, massacring over 90,000 people as they retreated from the invading Americans in 1944-1945. In Lipa, Japanese soldiers threw 400 Filipinos to their deaths in a well, with the murderous rampage claiming over 1,000 lives. One Japanese soldier recalled: "In the beginning, we could not kill even a man. But we managed to kill him. Then we hesitated to kill a woman. But we managed to kill her, too. Then we could kill children. We came to think as if we were just killing insects." However, the Filipino people withstood the brutality mercilessly reigned down on them and emerged from the Second World War and claimed their independence.

After independence in 1946, the Philippines, unfortunately, continued to experience difficulty. Ferdinand Marcos, who maintained centralized power from 1965-1986, faced Marxist and Muslim rebel factions, and in part used these political threats to justify martial law for much of his rule. In 1983, when opposition leader Benigno Aquino returned to the Philippines from exile, he was murdered immediately after exiting the plane, a shameless assassination by the Marcos regime. Eventually, Aquino's widow Corazon ran for President in 1986, and after trying to fix the election results, worldwide pressure forced Marcos out of power (he was then granted asylum in the United States). However, political corruption, scandal, and poverty still continue to plague the nation.

Recently, President Benigno S. Aquino III won a victory over Muslim separatist rebels in the South, and has also done much to reduce the rampant corruption that has adversely affected the lives of Filipinos for so many years. In addition, only a month ago the Philippines was struck by a severe earthquake from which the nation is still recovering. In response, Filipino-Americans have spearheaded relief efforts through groups such as the National Alliance for Filipino Concerns to try to deal with the nearly 800,000 Filipinos that were left homeless after the earthquake. Today there are 2.5 million Filipino-Americans, the second-largest population among Asian Americans. The Filipino-American population is generally devoutly Catholic, strongly devoted to family, and comprises a large number of health care workers (particularly nurses). While we come from cultures halfway around the world from each other, we are both strong peoples of resiliency, faith, family, and service.

We must donate our resources to help at this difficult time but we must also be sure that relief agencies provide transparency. When I was in Haiti, I realized the extent of this problem. If you are in a position to help, please consider helping one of the many well vetted organizations that are aiding in recovery efforts.

In a world rife with poverty and ubiquitous suffering, we often retreat to narrow truths. But in times of crisis, we must allow our hearts and souls to expand with compassion for the needs of the vulnerable. Sometimes we can help with our wallets and hands, and other times simply with our hearts and expressions of love and solidarity.

Leo Buscaglia tells a touching story:

A four-year-old child lived next door to an elderly gentleman, who had recently lost his wife. Upon seeing the man cry, the little boy went into the old gentleman's' yard, climbed onto his lap, and just sat there. When his mother asked him what he had said to the neighbor, the little boy responded, 'Nothing, I just helped him cry.'


Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V'Aretz Institute and the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century." Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America."