Manila Memories History of Jews in the Philippines

By Bonnie M. Harris, Ph.D.  @ New York Jewish Guide







In the late 15th and early 16th centuries, Portuguese vessels carried Sephardic Jewish merchants for the first time down the West Coast of Africa, around the horn and up the East Coast, and the across the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean to India, China, the Spice Islands of Indochina, and to the as yet unnamed islands of the Philippines. These Crypto-Jewish merchants escaped the persecutions of their time by migrating ubiquitously from the Iberian Peninsula to commercial ports scattered throughout the world.

Even before the arrival of these first Europeans in the Philippine archipelago, the socio-political fate of the Philippines was destined to be contested by the Spanish and Portuguese by virtue of the Treaty of Tordesillas that attempted to divide all New World discoveries between Spain and Portugal in the late 15th century. Disputes between the Iberian fleets over the Philippines and its neighboring islands, the Moluccas, resulted in the 1529 Treaty of Zaragoza, in which Portugal ceded the Philippines to Spain, which would remain under Spanish control for nearly four hundred years. Nevertheless, the Portuguese enjoyed an economic presence within the Spanish realm by virtue of Jewish merchants fleeing the Spanish Inquisition via Portugal to the New World. Medieval texts reveal that 180,000 Jews fled Spain and that of these, 120,000 entered Portugal raising the Jewish population numbers to 15% of the total population.When these Spanish Jewish refugees encountered a litany of extreme abuses, many accepted a forced conversion to Christianity as a means to escape death and eventually to escape Iberia – becoming explorers, mathematicians, cartographers, and especially merchants abroad Portuguese and Spanish vessels en route to New World ports – Manila

AJL-Feature-Issue11-Manila-2When Marranos or New Christians, other distinctions for the conversos or Cryto-Jewish merchants, reached the Philippines they no doubt engaged in the Spanish Galleon trade between Manila and Acapulco.ii The New Christian brothers Jorge and Domingo Rodriguez are the first recorded Marranos to have arrived in the Spanish Philippines, reaching Manila in the 1590s. By 1593 both were tried and convicted at an auto-da-fe in Mexico City because the Inquisition did not have an independent tribunal in the Philippines. The Inquisition imprisoned the Rodriguez brothers and subsequently tried and convicted at least eight other New Christians from the Philippine Islands.iii Jewish presence in these islands during the subsequent centuries of Spanish colonization remained small and unorganized.

John Griese writes that “Spanish law would not have permitted an organized Jewish religious life,” so that Philippine Jews would have practiced Judaism in secret as Marranos did throughout the world.iv But the Philippines had the rare distinction of being colonized by the Spanish, becoming the only Catholic enclave in an Orient world. Christian prejudices against Judaic adherents would have discouraged the settlement of Jewish practitioners, although as Crypto-Jews, they blended into the Spanish-Christian society of the elite and continued to fulfill their utilitarian mercantilist roles till the end of the 19th century.

When the Spanish Galleon trade between Manila and Acapulco declined, contact between Marranos of the Philippines and other merchant Jews of New World and Old World ports ultimately ceased, resulting in a decline of Jewish identity for the New Christians in the Catholic-dominated Philippines. The first permanent settlement of Jews in the Philippines during the nearly four hundred years of Spanish colonialism began with the arrival of three Levy brothers from Alsace-Lorraine, who were escaping the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870.

AJL-Feature-Issue11-Manila-3The opening of the Suez Canal in March 1869 provided a more direct trading route between Europe and the Philippines, which allowed all passenger and cargo ships to follow “a similar route: along warm-weather sea lanes of the Mediterranean through the canal along the Red Sea, and finally into the Indian Ocean.”v As businesses grew, the number of Jews in Manila grew as well. The Levy brothers were then joined by Turkish, Syrian, and Egyptian Jews, creating a multi-ethnic community of about fifty individuals by the end of the Spanish It was not until the Spanish-American war at the end of the 19th century, when the United States took control of the islands from Spain in 1898, that the Jewish community started to advance in the “first and only official American colony” in Asia.vii

When the Philippines became an American concern, this created opportunities for American Jewish citizens to take advantage of this new frontier – a wave of Jewish migration to East Asia that was neither Middle Eastern nor European. The arrival of American military forces to the Philippines brought a few Jewish servicemen who decided to remain in the islands after their military discharge and become permanent residents.

Jewish teachers from the United States also arrived with a contingent of “Thomasites,” a delegation of volunteer teachers, who gave public instruction to Filipino children. In 1901, 540 American teachers and some of their families boarded the U.S. Army Transport “Thomas” at San Francisco Pier, bound for the Philippines. Trained by prestigious institutions in the United States, these young men and women were selected by the U.S. Civil Service Commission to establish a modern public school system in the newly acquired U.S. territory of the Philippines and to conduct all instruction in English. By 1902, the number of American teachers, labeled Thomasites, swelled to 1,074.viii

In addition to education, new markets for import-export businesses attracted young American Jewish businessmen, who set up new shops in the islands as well. In this regard, the attraction of the Philippines for Jewish American merchants in setting up outposts for their larger home companies back in the United States seems consistent with the Port Jew identity of the Sephardic Jews of the Atlantic seaports and merchant Jews of other port cities in Asia.


Three important names appear in the Jewish community of Manila shortly after the turn of the century: Emil Bachrach, Morton I. Netzorg, and Israel Konigsberg. Annette Eberly, freelance author and Philippine resident, recorded that Emil Bachrach arrived in Manila in 1901 and soon “built a commercial empire of fairly substantial proportions.”ix Because he is regarded as the first American Jew who permanently settled in the Philippines, the synagogue and cultural hall, which the Bachrach family financed in subsequent decades, bore his name: Temple Emil and Bachrach Hall. Bachrach encouraged his extended family to resettle in the Philippines and experience the good life provided by this beautiful archipelago. Eberly, quoting Minna Gabermann, Bachrach’s niece, stated that living in Manila “was distinctly colonial and elegant in those days. It had a special air of a sumptuous, civilized world.”x Bachrach’s economic successes allowed him to be a generous philanthropist, who supported both Jewish and Christian causes.

By 1918, twenty years after the Americans took over the Philippines from the Spanish, the Manila Jewish community totaled about 150 families, including a small number of Russian Jews who sought asylum following the Bolshevik Revolution.xi Aside from these few Russian Jews who became a part of the multi-ethnic Jewish community in Manila, Russian Jewish immigration to Asia had little effect on the Philippines. Although institutionally trained rabbis, cantors, and shochetim did not appear on the scene permanently until well after WWII, lay members of the Jewish Community in Manila and Jewish refugees filled these roles at various times in the first few decades of the American period in the Philippines.

We must remember that peace did not prevail in the Philippines following the 1898 Spanish-American war until 1902, after the three-year long Philippine War of Independence. No formal religious Jewish community existed at that time and one would not be officially developed until 1917. It took about ten years of American rule in the Philippines for the influx of international Jewish businessmen, teachers, and ex-soldiers to gather themselves into an official community of Jews. Frank Ephraim recounts that by 1919, 150 Jewish families lived in Manila of various nationalities and denominations and that religious services at the time were held in family homes. Ephraim also states that “in 1919, Yom Kippur services took place in the Eagles Hall, where Motel Goldstein, a Russian Jew, officiated. That year the Jewish community was formally organized.”xii These events demonstrated a growing Jewish identity in Manila, led by the merchant Jewish families, which sought after the establishment of a form of Jewish worship that was sustainable within their unique community.


In 1911, the growing Jewish community in the Philippines gained one of its most important families, Morton I. Netzorg and his wife, Katherine. They came from the United States and joined the Philippine public school teacher corps of Thomasites. Their son, Morton “Jock” Netzorg, was born February 4, 1912 in the town of Nueva Caceres. His memoirs, written in 1987, relate the family’s many business ventures and the educational influence they had on the lives of the children of Manila’s most prestigious families.xiii Some of those students included “the daughters of Paul McNutt, General Sutherland, Ambassador MacMurray, [and] General Casey.”xiv Israel Netzorg became the representative of the Jewish Welfare Board in the Philippines, with the responsibility to oversee matters involving Jewish sailors and soldiers. He was also the representative of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).xv Jewish merchants in the Philippines filled multiple rolls within their own Jewish community as well as the larger Philippine community, as they joined and frequently led civic organizations too.

According to Netzorg, businesses from the American mainland began to arrive with increasing volume in 1920. Manila Jewry included the founder of the Makati Stock Exchange, the conductor of the Manila Symphony Orchestra, and other professionals such as physicians, dentists and architects.xvi

The Frieder Brothers, the family most instrumental in saving German-Jewish refugees in the late 1930s, arrived in 1921 and expanded their family’s state-side cigar business into a lucrative venture in Manila, the Helena Cigar Factory. The Frieder Brothers’ economic prosperity, along with their high level of societal interaction, provided them with safety and status that allowed them to be leaders of the newly formed Jewish community. Eberly described this emerging Jewish society:

There was little Jewish flavor in this 19th century lifestyle of the very rich. The Jewish families did go to the Temple for special occasions, and the existence of the adjacent social hall [did] serve to centralize and focus Jewish interrelationships and concerns, but it was all very low-key.xvii

Once Temple Emil was built in 1923, primarily through the generous contributions of the Bachrachs, Netzorgs, and Frieders, the Jewish Community in Manila commissioned Motel Goldstein, the Russian Jew who had been serving as a lay rabbi, to hire an ordained rabbi from Shanghai. Israel Konigsberg, who had settled in Shanghai immediately after World War I, had been a Jewish Chaplain in the army of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. While in Shanghai, he had received cantorial training and upon meeting up with Motel Goldstein, he was hired to officiate services in Temple Emil in Manila in 1924. Jock Netzorg was the first bar mitzvah held in the Philippine Jewish synagogue.xviii Netzorg recounts how he later taught in the Jewish Sunday School at Temple Emil, relating how Emil Bachrach provided bus service by picking up Jewish children from all over town and driving them to Temple for Sunday School and then driving them back home again.xix


The Jewish community of Manila, which continued to gradually increase in size in the 1920s and early 1930s as businessmen and merchants from the U.S. and the Middle East began filtering into East Asia, along with political refugees from Russia and other parts of Europe, remained a predominantly American-led Jewish community.xx

By 1936, the Jewish community in the Philippines had a distinctly cosmopolitan makeup with a total population of about 500 persons. Even though there were no separations by communities as existed in Shanghai, one would not describe the  Temple Emilas uniform either. It wasn’t until the Nazi danger to European Jewry arose in the 1930s that a united Jewish consciousness in the Philippines sprang into existence.

The small, decentralized and mostly secular-minded Jewish community of Manila took heroic steps to save its fellow Jews from sure destruction. As Bachrach’s niece Gaberman told Eberly in 1975, “We only really became Jewish-conscious in a deep way when this terrible threat came out of Europe, and suddenly there were Jews in desperate need of help.”xxi Netzorg maintained that his father considered his most important deed in the Philippines to have been “bringing refugees out of Hitler’s Germany,”xxii when refugees, fleeing the encroaching Nazi expansion, found asylum in every country in the greater Asian world, including 1300 refugee Jews in the Philippines.

The occupation of the Philippines by the Japanese during WWII brought these refugees and their benefactors under Japanese rule until the liberation of the archipelago and the further dispersion of the Philippine Jewish Community to other ports of call.

Mh – New York Jewish

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