Philippines: Israel and a much older connection

Two items this week focused on the Philippines, which has a little-known and very interesting Jewish history dating from Inquisition days, when the islands were a refuge for Jews escaping from persecution.

Additionally, the Inquisition used the Philippines as a sort of penal colony. There are Mexican Inquisition records indicating that people were sentenced to Manila for several years.

One story concerned a monument to be dedicated in June in Israel commemorating the “Open Doors” program, and remembering the courage, hospitality and determination of the Philippine government, through President Manuel L. Quezon, to give humanitarian support to European Jews seeking refuge from the Holocaust in the 1930s.

The second story was about a Philippino family that learned about its Sephardic Converso background and has just returned to Judaism in Kansas City.

Tracing the Tribe posted on the country’s Jewish history in March 2007. Here’s a link to the Embassy of Israel’s web site for an online exhibit telling the Manila community’s history since the Spanish colonial days through to more contemporary times.

The islands were a Spanish colony from 1521-1898, and conversos accompanied Spanish adventurers who settled the islands, according to Harvard University history professor Jonathan Goldstein, who wrote a paper on Jewish merchants in Far Eastern ports.

New Christians Jorge and Domingo Rodriguez are the first recorded Jews to have arrived, reaching Manila in the 1590s. In 1593, both were tried and convicted at a Mexico City trial ( auto-da-fe) because the Inquisition was not operating in the Philippines. At least eight other New Christians were also tried and convicted. Others with Jewish roots kept very quiet, settling in rural areas, living a precarious existence and keeping their traditions very secret in a very Catholic colony.

The Suez Canal opened in March 1869, cutting the travel time from Europe to the Philippines from three months to 40 days. In 1870, brothers Adolf, Charles and Rafael Levy arrived from Alsace-Lorraine, fleeing the Franco-Prussian War, and established a Manila jewelry store famous throughout the Philippines, La Estrella del Norte included general merchandise, gems, pharmaceuticals and automobiles. Leopold Kahn, also from Alsace, arrived in 1909 and joined them in business.

Many refugees were welcomed during the Holocaust. Later, Sephardic Bagdadi Jews from India arrived, as well as those from the American-European Ashkenazi community.

Some Sephardic discussion groups, such as Sephardim.org have recently seen messages from Filipinos discussing their Jewish backgrounds and remnants of Hebrew still preserved.

Click here to read the story of Cantor Cysner and more.

The Manila Bulletin’s story about the monument in Rishon-le-Zion, Israel is here.

Recognizing the generosity and humanitarian assistance of the Filipino people to the Jews during the Holocaust, the Israeli government is set to inaugurate the first Philippine monument in Israel’s Rishon Lezion Holocaust Memorial Park on June.

The Israeli embassy in Manila described the first-ever monument as a “lasting symbol” of more than five decades-old bilateral partnership between the Israel and the Philippines.

This year marks “another milestone for the cordial ties” between the two countries with the inauguration of the “Open Doors” monument, designed by Filipino artist Jun Yee, on June 21, the embassy said in a statement.

“The warm hospitality of the Filipino people undoubtedly shed light to one of the darkest and most difficult periods in Jewish history,” the Israeli embassy said.

Holocaust survivor, Frank Ephraim, documented the Holocaust in his book “Escape to Manila,” which prompted the creation of the “Open Doors” monument, which was initiated by former Ambassador Antonio Modena, who died in 2007.

The Kansas City Jewish Chronicle covered the story of a group of individuals who recently converted to Judaism. Involved in this story was Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, a Brazilian native, well know for assisting converts and in outreach efforts in South and Central America. The group included a Filipino family:


It’s been a long road for Romeo Bagunu, his wife, Araceli, and their three children, Yeremeya, 10, Yonatan, 9, and Annaliza, 6. Both Romeo and his wife were born in the Philippines and raised in the United States.

“The whole process has taken many years for us, from study, trying to work out our faith,” said Romeo Bagunu.

He estimates they’ve been studying Judaism on their own for 11 years. Research into their ancestry sparked a curiosity about Judaism. Both Romeo and Araceli found that their heritage was Spanish and that their ancestors had settled in the Philippines after the Spanish Inquisition. The Inquisition expelled Spain’s Jews and forced those who remained to convert to Christianity.

“During the Inquisition, a lot of the Jews settled in the Philippines. In learning that, we became more interested that our family had a lot of Spanish-Jewish culture they kept,” Bagunu said.

In exploring their faith, “we went from a very charismatic Christian background to a Messianic congregation, then to an Orthodox congregation and finally settled last year with Rabbi Cukierkorn’s New Reform Temple… Moving from the Christian faith to this, we wanted to know where the paths were alike and different,” he said.

Read the complete articles at the links above.

4 Responses

  1. nice story ..im a pure pilipino too and studying judaism atm.. 11 yrs omg im just no my 2nd yr atm..btw shalom bhferdz

  2. My family, as far as I know, is has Filipino and Spanish roots. However, I while researching my mother's maiden name (which is supposedly where my Spanish roots come from), I discovered that her maiden name is traditionally Sephardic Jewish. I came across your article while trying to trace my possible Jewish roots.

  3. Hello lgp,My sister-in-law is also Filipino and we have been researching possible Sephardic roots. What are the surnames you are researching? It is possible that you may have some family traditions that are rooted in Judaism too. DNA testing may also be a tool you can use in tracing your possible Sephardic roots. Please post more about your ancestry here on Tracing The Tribe and feel free to contact me at heyjude0701@gmail.com if you want to find out more about DNA testing.Judy Simon

  4. Israeli's sure know of Judaism existence amongts Filipinos but not really acknowledging it. My son being born in Israel doesn't count at all. He practices judaism all through out our stay there. but so far, no rabbi will teach him here in the philippines as we are very far from makati. wish all things are well to all… ingat!

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