By Hannah Gaventa
You lived in the Philippines? But are there any Jews there? This is a common response when I inform people that I spent the past year as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s Philippines Coordinator, as part of my JDC Entwine-Pears Fellowship.
Well yes, actually. I lived in Manila, which is home to a lovely, warm, welcoming and vibrant Jewish community, and the country has had a long Jewish presence – including a fascinating chapter involving President Manuel Quezon, together with JDC, saving Jewish refugees from the Holocaust.
That is not what brought me to the Philippines, however. I was there coordinating disaster relief and recovery projects in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, a devastating storm that struck on November 8th, 2013, killing over 6,000 people and destroying 12.2 million homes. With wind speeds of over 170 mph and a storm surge 25 feet high, Haiyan was the strongest recorded Typhoon to ever make landfall. Communities were largely under-prepared and had not been expecting its ferocity.
There was no question for JDC that it was the right thing to do as a Jewish organization to respond to this disaster. Since Haiyan struck more than two years ago, JDC along with our local partners has assisted over 15,000 people, helping on their road to recovery.
One of my first site visits this year was to a small remote island called Bintuan, off the coast of Palawan, where I met a representative of the Tagbanua tribe. Manahan Abella, also known fondly as ‘Tatay’ or ‘Father,’ is 57 years old – the same age as my own dad. He lives with his community of 36 families and they are one of the oldest ethnic groups in the Philippines.
In this village, which is three hours by boat from the mainland, there is no school, health center or basic social services. This is a community of fisherfolk and seaweed farmers, who may earn $2/3 on a good day but mainly subsist on fish – eating what they can catch. The nearest water source is a two-hour walk up a mountain and most of the adults have not had any education past the first grade. The Tagbanua tribe is often discriminated against and is in the process of many complex land rights claims.
When Typhoon Haiyan hit Bintuan, the community had no evacuation center to run to safety. Many homes were destroyed and almost all boats and seaweed farms damaged.
When I arrived the community was despondent, with nowhere to turn.
Some six months later, I visited Bintuan again. Tatay proudly showed me his new seaweed lines and talked of how the community has hope for the future. JDC’s local partner ‘STPRC’ are not only assisting the community to recover their livelihoods, but are also working to ensure the community becomes more resilient and prepared for any future disasters and are even teaching basic literacy and numeracy skills to both adults and children in the community.
Meeting Tatay and others like him inspires me to continue this work. There is so much more to do in a world beset by challenges: 1.2 billion people living in extreme poverty, more than 99 million children under the age of 5 significantly under-nourished; 58 million children do not attend elementary school, and 2.5 billion people do not have access to basic sanitation.
I feel strongly that it is the responsibility of the global Jewish community to pool our resources, learn from each other, and work together to “repair the world.”
As we usher in the new phase of Sustainable Development Goals – a set of critical targets relating to international development needs – we as Jews are able to have a real voice for change if we partner together more often, educating our youth about global issues, and empowering others to get involved in international development.
Each one of us can do our part in standing up for the voiceless, speaking out for the vulnerable and pursuing justice, both locally and globally. After all, as Rabbi Tarfon taught us, it is not up to us to complete the work, but we are not free to desist from it.
Hannah Gaventa spent the past year in the Philippines coordinating JDC’s disaster relief and recovery work. She currently serves as International Director of Jewish Learning for Moishe House.
Inspired to engage? Visit OLAM’s Take Action page for opportunities to get involved in relief and service efforts worldwide.