My Philippines Disaster Relief Journey, Part V: Giving Thanks, Believing in Miracles

As I return home from the Philippines at this time of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving, I think how the messages of both holidays are so relevant: wherever we are in the world, we have reason to be thankful, and wherever we are, we can triumph over something that seems more powerful than we are.

This message was brought home to me during my sojourn in the Philippines, where I met so many survivors who wanted to share and to give what they have, and who still remained content.   They also remain strong, which is part of the significance of Hanukkah, demonstrating their commitment to rebuild and triumph over one of the worst natural disasters imaginable.


Today is Thanksgiving in the United States, the country where I spent most of my life. I know I certainly have a lot for which to be thankful. At this moment, I’m most grateful that I had the opportunity to make this trip and no less grateful to be home now with my entire family. (Although glad to be home, I do have a sense of guilt for not staying longer and doing more.).


It is also the first day of Hanukkah throughout the world. The miracle of Hanukkah, exemplified by the oil that lasted eight nights, shines in lit flames of candle and oil throughout the world – even in the dark nights of the Philippines. It seems to shine brightest in my own community – Hashmonaim – believed to be the site where the first miracle of lights took place.

So at this most infrequent conjunction of holidays (and forgive me for not conjugating the words as everyone else has), I am filled with both thanksgiving and a renewed belief in miracles. Ironically, CBS aired Survivor: Philippines in 2012, but for over 100 million people on the country’s 7,100 islands, the true show of survival has occurred over the past three weeks. And amid all the darkness of the catastrophe, there is still plenty of light to be seen. Undoubtedly even more will be found. That is always the miracle of the lights – that out of just a small amount of fuel, many lights will emerge from the darkness.


Numerous stories I heard first-hand from Filipino survivors themselves and those who assisted them will forever stay with me. One of the most heartwarming I heard was that of a blind Filipino woman who arrived at the Israeli Field Hospital for treatment after the typhoon. (The hospital treated as many as 2,000 people each day in Bogo City, on the island of Cebu.) After a two-hour surgery, the blind woman opened her eyes to experience light for the first time. Media reports indicate that this make-shift hospital has brought sight to at least four individuals who previously couldn’t see.


As a practicing Jew, I have always tried to live according to the laws given to my people in order that we might be “as a light unto the Nations.” The past ten days have allowed me to truly feel, through what I saw and heard, that we as a people are truly a light unto the nations.

During my time in the Philippines I saw many survivors trying to get out of town. I also saw survivors of all ages arriving with little in hand other than what they were wearing, or perhaps a baby carried in front and a backpack in back. Few of them had any luggage. Many arrived without family members – often not knowing whether they were missing or lost forever to the natural disaster. But most importantly, most survivors arrived with an unshaken belief in G-d and a hope for a brighter future.


I am warmed by the light of these stories:

  • LIGAYA, the Girl with the Violin – A 14-year-old girl emerged from the C130 aircraft with only a backpack on her back and violin in her hand. Reluctant to accept any assistance, she finally let me hold her violin. I walked her to the grandstand waiting area at Villamore, got her seated, and made sure she had something to eat, checking on her frequently. Finally, I asked if she felt like playing something. She stood up and played the Philippine national anthem to applause and hugs from those around her.
  • MARISAL – I tried to engage this young lady in conversation while assisting her with her knapsack. Seeing she didn’t want to talk, I didn’t make further attempts. After Marisal ate something, she gave me her name and said, “I’m sorry I can’t talk now. I’m still in mourning – I lost six family members.” At that point, I couldn’t talk either.
  • JAY – He arrived with his belongings – 14 garbage bags full – more than others I had seen. When I learned that his sister, Anna Velasquez, works in Jerusalem, I asked if there was a message I could convey to her. Appreciatively, he said that he had spoken to her already, and she was coming to visit next month.
  • RIZZA – This lady drove me to literal tears. I met her as she descended from her arriving aircraft on Saturday night. After I accompanied her to the waiting area, she accepted one of the Bibles that were being handed to all survivors. Then she said to me, “I am blessed. I see two Jews in one week – one in Tacloban on Thursday and you now on the Jewish Sabbath.” Although the Sabbath was now technically over, no correction seemed necessary.

These individuals brought the light that I hope will last for more than just the coming eight days. They offer a legacy of survival, hope, courage, and thanksgiving.

In addition to the lighted menorah, a symbol of Hanukkah is the dreidel, a spinning toy with which young children love to play. On each of its sides is a Hebrew letter. The letters – shin, hey, gimel, and peh—are also the first four letters of the Hebrew sentence: “A great miracle happened here.” In the Philippines, a great miracle happened. First came the once in a century typhoon of such ferocious strength. Next came the demonstrated resilience and faith of the Filipino people. A smaller miracle, perhaps: the effect on my own heart, filled with so many testaments to thanksgiving and hope.

Like the ancient Maccabees, I’d like to think that the relief efforts in which I was able to witness were a way to light a candle in the darkness. May there be more candles to light the way for the people of the Philippines during this holiday season.

Wishing all a Happy Thanksgiving and Hanukkah Sameach.

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