A date with a rabbi.
This was how the talk of Rabbi Eliyahu Azaria was listed in the calendar of events for the two-week special summer program on Jewish-Christian Spirituality, held recently at the Institute of Formation and Religious Studies (IFRS) in Quezon City.
But for Corazon Roxas, one of around 40 Catholics who listened to Rabbi Azaria talk on Jewish beliefs and practices, it was more like a date with history.
Like most Catholics, Roxas, a lay masteral student of biblical studies at the Society of Divine Word in Tagaytay City, has read about Jews, rabbis and synagogues in the Bible. But it was her first time to hear about a Jewish synagogue in Makati City and her first time to see a rabbi in the flesh.
And that was a defining moment for her, specifically a time to discard stereotypes.
Roxas’ image of a rabbi used to be that of a stern-looking, long-bearded man, dressed in black, hands always clasped in front of him. But she found Azaria “normal,” wearing ordinary clothes and shiny black shoes—and handsome, too.
Other participants found him “positive,” “with a sense of humor” and “likeable.”
Azaria was happy about the interfaith dialogue—mostly with Catholic nuns and priests—which came at a time “when there’s so much understanding with different Christian communities.”
The dialogue was arranged by Sr. Helen Graham, a theologian, biblical scholar and professor at IFRS, who described it as “an important first step to continue to make our relationship grow.”
Among those who listened to Azaria’s talk was Zenaida “Nini” Quezon-Avanceña, daughter of President Manuel Quezon.
The Bait Yaacov Synagogue of the Jewish Association of the Philippines on De La Costa Street in Makati City is the only synagogue in the Philippines.
It is part of a complex that houses a large function room, a spacious kosher kitchen, library, classrooms, mikvah (a ritual bath where Orthodox Jews purify themselves). Its library is said to be the largest Jewish library in Southeast Asia.
Rabbi Azaria counts 80 families in the small but “vibrant” community.
A native of Chicago, Azaria and his wife moved to the Philippines seven years ago, after his rabbinical studies and ordination at the Midrash Sephardic Yeshiva in Jerusalem.
A graduate of the Joseph Straus Rabbinical Seminary’s Amiel Program (Straus-Amiel), Azaria underwent training to meet the challenges of serving different communities, whether within monolithic religious communities, in mixed congregations with religious and secular members, or communities seeking to find their way back to Judaism.
Straus-Amiel training covers understanding Diaspora communities; professional leadership; communications and public relations; family counseling, rhetoric and public speaking; guiding families through life-cycle events; the structure and management of the synagogue throughout the Jewish year; and contemporary questions in the Jewish world.
The Makati synagogue offers kindergarten classes for Jewish children and engages older children with appealing after-school and Sunday classes in Hebrew and Jewish studies and has bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah classes, as well as weekly night adult classes.
Since Azaria is a shohet—a person who has rabbinic training and license to slaughter animals and birds—all meals in the synagogue are strictly kosher, that is, “fit” or “proper” to be eaten, as these have been prepared according to Jewish food laws.
But kosher, according to Azaria, is also applied to behavior. For example, he said, if one is mean, he is not behaving in the kosher way.
He discussed at length the kosher animals—those considered fit to eat—as stated in Leviticus. These are cows, sheep, goats and fish with scales.
Azaria explained that Jews observe the food laws to become more brainy, more spiritual. But more important, as kosher animals are fit to be offered at the king’s altar, by eating and observing kosher in their actions, Jews are sitting and eating at the table of the king.
Azaria saw nothing intrinsically wrong with eating pork (not kosher to the Jews), but eating only kosher food strengthens Jews’ relationship with the Almighty, as they are following the teachings of the Torah—the Jewish laws.
Graham said inviting Azaria for a talk at the IFRS was part of the institute’s commitment to improve Christian-Jewish relations.
“We’ve been visiting the synagogue,” Graham said. “I brought my Bible group one Friday evening and we’ve got back there a few more times. We talked to him and little by little, we were trying to make a good relationship between the synagogue and the IFRS.”
The IFRS is a center for formation, with students coming from even non-Christian countries like Burma (Myanmar), China and Vietnam.
Graham said the visits were part of the institute’s Bat Kol (heavenly voice) commitment to Jewish-Christian relations.
Based in Jerusalem, the Bat Kol Institute was formed as a response to Nostre Aetate (In Our Time), a Vatican II document that introduced reforms in Church policies, including interactions with non-Christians like Muslims and the Jews.
Section 4 of Nostra Aetate repudiates the centuries-old charge of “deicide” against the Jews. It states that while the Jewish authorities and their followers pressed for the crucifixion of Jesus, his death “cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today.”
The 1965 document also stresses the religious bond shared by Jews and Catholics, reaffirms the eternal covenant between God and the people of Israel, and dismisses church interest in trying to baptize Jews.
The IFRS conducts a special summer course on Jewish-Christian spirituality, which includes the history of Jewish-Christian relations, an overview of relevant documents of the Catholic Church, introduction to Hebrew, and a study of Scriptures common to Christians and Jews.
The course also includes a study of Jewish feasts and their relationship to Christian feasts, reflection on the Shoah (Holocaust), and an introduction to Jewish prayer and the Sabbath.
Asked why the IFRS is offering the course, Graham said that most Catholic clergy are unfamiliar with Nostre Aetate, although it was promulgated nearly 50 years ago.
Jesus was a Jew
She cited the need to purge the liturgy of antisemitisms and to adjust the “Pabasa” (the Lenten chanting of the Passion), which continues to blame the Jews for the death of Jesus.
“It is our commitment to have a correct understanding of our traditions and how we are related to the Jewish people,” Graham said. “Jesus was a Jew. His parents were Jewish and the disciples were Jewish, too.”
When asked about the challenges of living in the Philippines as a Jew, Rabbi Azaria said that observing kosher is a challenge because there are no kosher restaurants in the Philippines.
As a special service for visitors and for local residents, kosher meals to go can be ordered from the synagogue.
Azaria praised the Philippines for giving shelter to Jews who fled Europe to escape death under the Nazis during World War II.
Frank Ephraim, an American engineer who made it safely to Manila as a child, chronicled the flight to the Philippines and identified 1,318 European Jews who were saved from the gas chambers and mass graves of the Holocaust by President Quezon’s open-door policy.
In 1947, the Philippines also stood by the Jews, delivering the “most crucial and deciding vote” for the United Nations resolution creating the state of Israel, according to a report by the Department of Foreign Affairs.
The Philippines was the first Asian country to officially recognize Israel as a state.
Rabbi Azaria said he was thankful for that singular day.
Graham said she was confident the relationship with the synagogue would continue to grow.
There will be another date, and even more dates, with the rabbi.