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Collector of Souls on the Island of Cebu
by Rabbi Nir Donenfeld, Cebu Island
Cebu Island in the Philippines is considered the central island in the province of Cebu. The island is famous for its varied colorful coral reefs that surround the island with its white sand beaches, its many scuba diving areas, scenic hiking areas and incredibly beautiful beaches.

Cebu is the size of Israel. About three million people live on the island. There is a small Jewish community concentrated around the Chabad House with about twenty families, most of them Israelis, but there are also Jewish families who came from Australia and the U.S. Most of our work is with Jewish tourists who come throughout the year, mainly during the Israeli winter.

A few months after we arrived here, our financial situation was not the greatest. Every week we worried about where we would get the money for our work. One day, we got a phone call from someone in Florida. He sounded hysterical. He said that he has a good friend who lives on an island near us and that he was put in jail without anyone knowing about it and with no one to help him. My wife prepared sandwiches and we set out. The one who helped us get into the jail was a member of the Noachide community, a young man who had connections with law enforcement officials.

We quickly learned that the fellow had been falsely accused. A local woman took all his money and his possessions deceitfully and he remained without anything. Of course he was thrilled to see us. Meanwhile, his family in the U.S. got him out of jail by paying an exorbitant bail. Then he had to hire a lawyer for a huge amount of money in order to prove his innocence, but he didn’t have the money. His hearing was scheduled for two weeks later. We felt bad for the guy who was likely to rot in jail for years to come for no crime. We decided to do all we could to help him.

Every day I made phone calls to raise money to pay for a lawyer. After two days of phone calls, I reached a wealthy person in the capital who agreed to give the full amount and even promised to deposit it in our bank account at the end of the week. Since I could not rely on promises I continued my efforts in fundraising until I reached another donor who immediately deposited the entire amount in our account.

After the money cleared I called the local Jew to tell him that we already had the money. The next call was to the lawyer to arrange an appointment. The lawyer did his work well and the man was freed and left the Philippines.

In the meantime, our financial situation at the Chabad House was still awful and I had no idea where to get money from. We had to pay bills and it reached the point where we had no money to go shopping for the upcoming Shabbos.

I was convinced that the Rebbe would help us. I waited for a miracle. Suddenly, the man who paid for the man’s lawyers told us that he was moved by our willingness to help a Jew and he sent us a donation. A short while later, the first man who promised to help called and although I had told him I already had a donor for that case, he insisted that he had designated the amount for charity already and he would give it to us to do with it as we pleased. These two donations helped us a lot.

Once I was attending the conference of Chabad representatives in New York when I got a text from a woman in England who wanted help with her father who was dying on an island near Cebu.

She said she was going to him from England and asked that we take care of a Jewish burial. She said that she did not believe that her father would live another week. In the Philippines, hospitals embalm the dead. When she told me which hospital he was in, I sent someone from the Noachide community, a person who holds a high governmental position, to warn the doctors not to touch the man’s body when he died.

At a certain point, I lost contact with the woman and did not know what happened to her father. The connection was renewed only when I returned to Cebu, an hour before Shabbos. The woman sent me a text which said her father died the previous week and the doctors did not touch him, but he was in a local church surrounded by crosses. In addition, we found out that he died with big debts and the authorities on the island were demanding that she pay what he owed before releasing the body for burial. She had already bought a ticket and was about to leave the Philippines, despondent over the fact that her father would have to remain buried on the island.

After receiving the Rebbe’s blessing, right after Shabbos I headed for the island.

The trip to the island should have taken about ten hours but it actually took about two days.

There were obstacles at every turn. At some point, the bus broke down in the middle of nowhere. Precious hours passed until a replacement bus arrived. Because of that, I missed the last ferry and there was no other transportation in the middle of the night. I had to wait at the port until morning and only then was there a ferry that took me to the island I needed to get to.

I was afraid that time was running out. His debts grew bigger because of the cost of the hospitalization and there was nobody to pay. The way it worked on the island was, if the money wasn’t paid within a day, the church could cremate the body. After much persuasion on my part, the church agreed to delay cremation. At the same time, they refused to release the body without a death certificate from the hospital, but without paying them for the hospitalization the hospital refused to provide the death certificate.

The ones who helped me a lot were the people from Zaka led by Rabbi Yehuda Meshi-Zahav and the emissary in Hong Kong, Rabbi Mordechai Avtzon, who got involved. Rabbi Avtzon was able to enlist one of the wealthy people in his city, Rafi Aharoni, who was happy to pay thousands of dollars for this cause. Rabbi Avtzon also guided me throughout regarding the relevant halachos.

After a complicated process and quite a few difficulties, the body was flown to Manila where a Jewish funeral took place and the man was given a Jewish burial.


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