Connected Through the Web of Life

by Angelica Berrie

Growing up in Philippine convent schools all my life, I first encountered Jewish philanthropy when I moved to New Jersey. I came to this community as a practicing Catholic who went to Mass in the African Mission church around the corner from my house in Englewood.

Somewhere along the way, I found myself part of an active Jewish “mishpoche” – a family – with role models who inspired me to stretch my wings and grow.

When I decided to convert after my husband Russ’s death, it was after living and giving within this circle of support. I was welcomed by my community, initially perhaps because I was Russ Berrie’s wife. But by the time I left for Jerusalem to study for my conversion, I was a passionate participant in Jewish communal life and resonated to Jewish values that spoke to my soul.

Coming to Judaism was a leap into the unknown, after a childhood shaped by nuns whose influence left an imprint on my subconscious. It was a cultural shock to go from putting pesos discreetly into a collection basket at Sunday mass to standing up and making public pledges that actually mention how much money you are about to give. I learned that while the highest form of mitzvah is done anonymously, we also have an obligation to inspire others to follow (acharai).

I entered the world of Judaism after I lost my husband, sales entrepreneur Russ Berrie, whose success selling teddy bears and trolls fueled our philanthropy. I had an immersive learning experience at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, studying with the all-stars of Judaism: David Hartman, Donniel Hartman, Micah Goodman, Moshe Halberthal….

For good measure, lunch hours were shared with geniuses who were Israel Prize winners.

While I quailed at the prospect of studying one-on-one with David Hartman in his library, it was an incredible initiation into my new faith.

After my summer of studies ended, I felt like a small fish about to be set loose in a vast ocean. I asked my teacher, “How do I begin?” He replied: ‘It doesn’t matter. Just start swimming!”

I discovered that to be a Jew meant embarking on a journey of lifelong learning, a transformative process of becoming a better person.

I faced the question of emerging identity when some insensitive soul told me that I can never really be a Jew, because I could never turn my back on all those years of ingrained Catholic faith.

I asked David what he thought and he glared at me through bushy brows and bellowed: “You bring ALL of who you are to where you are going!” Those words continue to ring in my ears.

As a newly minted Jew working on integrating my sense of self, it was reassuring to know that honoring my past allowed me to bring the best of who I am to my Jewish identity.

While I often speak in Jewish communities about my journey of becoming Ruth, embracing my husband’s people – and incidentally having a mother-in-law named Naomi – my sense of belonging to the Jewish people did not come at the expense of forgetting my own roots in the Philippines.

Throughout the 22 years I have lived in the United States, I developed an intense relationship to Israel but never had to think about whether I felt the same about the Philippines. Typhoon Haiyan changed all that.

This is a watershed moment for the Philippine diaspora, myself included.

I grew up under martial law and experienced life under a dictator, with curfews, coups d’etat, regime changes, and political assassinations; stood in front of tanks during the People Power revolution; endured corruption, and lived through all of it. It has never fazed Filipinos to weather an average of 20 typhoons a year, an occasional earthquake, or even the volcanic eruption that spewed ashes all the way to Hawaii and changed the intensity of the sunset in New Jersey, displacing aborigines in the rain forests and evacuating American military bases to make way for molten lava.

The Philippine topography is challenging, with 7,107 islands – only 2,000 of them habitable – with a huge percent of the population living along the coast, making their livelihood by the sea.

Our English literacy is close to 95 percent; we are the world’s third largest English-speaking nation.

Out of a population of about 94 million people, about 12 percent live overseas – about 950 migrant workers leave every hour. That is the human flight capital of the Filipino diaspora. Those workers are substantial contributors to the economy, infusing about $ 8.1 billion into it in about five years.

One of the little-known stories about Jews and Filipinos has surfaced only recently, with the documentary on President Manuel Quezon, whose friendship with the Frieder brothers, who owned a cigar company in the Philippines, played out over poker games, led to his issuing 1200 visas for Jews escaping the Holocaust.

I was amazed to meet someone in Jerusalem who told me she would not be alive today if her father had not been given this life-saving visa. It was even more amazing to hear that her father still spoke Tagalog like a street kid in Manila!

Today, Israelis value the quality of their Filipino caregivers, who constitute one of the largest groups of immigrant workers in Israel. It is a new phenomenon, which raised a challenge for the Catholic church in Israel. Church leaders were not equipped to teach the catechism in Hebrew to Filipino kids, who are growing up with the understanding that Jesus was Jewish, who celebrate Pesach and Easter, and who form relationships that lead to marriage.

So, what does it mean to be a Jew and a Filipino in the wake of this devastation? Where is the intersection of values with the potential to make a difference?

I found it interesting to hear Filipino bloggers and Philippine representatives at the Global Conference for Climate Challenge quoting Hillel without knowing who he was: “If I am not for myself, who is? And when I am for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

It has been heartening to learn that Israeli groups have been among the first humanitarian organizations on the ground. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which is the world’s largest Jewish humanitarian aid organization; IsraAID, which has been funded through Jewish Federations of North America, and the Israel Defense Forces have set up field hospitals, sent trauma specialists, and delivered its first Filipino baby, who has been named Israel. As they did in Haiti after the earthquake and in Thailand after the tsunami, these Jewish organizations bring tikkun olam – the goal of repairing the world – to countries in need. They have been phenomenal ambassadors in a world filled with conflict, bearing the message that humanity needs to hear.

From my heart, I thank these Jewish organizations that represent the best of Jewish values in the world on behalf of the Filipino people, whose spirits have been dampened but not extinguished. Filipinos are a resilient and soulful people, quick to respond to tragedy with a song and a smile. While a majority of us are poor, the humbleness of our existence has been grounded in faith and family. We endure sacrifices to work far from our shores to afford better lives for our families back home. What we lack in wealth, we have much of in spirit and generosity.

To rebuild our world, we must draw strength from within our own ranks, awakening the vast network of diaspora outside our country to move with the Bayanihan spirit that is at the heart of our culture. The word Bayani means hero, and the spirit we need in these challenging times is to be heroes for one another.

The native American saying “metakuye oyasin” – we are all related – expresses this sense of our interconnectedness. Looking at this tragedy from two different spiritual foundations only reinforces my belief that we are all one people, connected through the web of life.

Angelica Berrie is president of the Russell Berrie Foundation and North America chair of Shalom Hartman Institute. She recently co-authored a book on philanthropy, “A Passion for Giving: Tools and Inspiration for Creating a Family Foundation,” and she owns Kate’s Paperie, an iconic New York paper specialty destination. This article was originally published in the Jewish Standard.