Filipino-Israeli singer Howie Danao on guitar. Credit: Courtesy.
Filipino-Israeli singer Howie Danao on guitar. Credit: Courtesy.

A Filipino singer’s journey to Judaism in Israel

Howie Danao, 23, said that for all his childhood years, he felt that he was different from everyone.

He had grown up in a swanky northern Tel Aviv home adopted by a secular Israeli family, alongside his Filipino single mother who is a foreign worker.

Fluent in Hebrew, he was a semifinalist in a top Israeli reality-show competition when in high school with the future winner of the Eurovision contest, having started writing and composing songs as a lonely kid of 8.

He went on to serve in the Israel Defense Forces even before he even became an Israeli citizen.

But it was only when Howie Danao, 23, took part in a Jewish-identity program for Israeli soldiers who are disconnected from their heritage at the tail end of his military service that he started questioning life (“Why I am here? Why was I adopted?”), which led him on a spiritual journey to Judaism.

“The only answer that felt right to all the questions is that there is no reasonable answer,” he told JNS in an interview in Tel Aviv. “I was chosen into that reality, and the only thing for me to do was to choose that which chose me.”

A privileged but lonely childhood

It was anything but a normal childhood for the Filipino-Israeli national. His mother, a single parent, came to Israel to work as a caretaker nearly a quarter century ago, Danao recounted, unbeknown to her pregnant with him. (An estimated 30,000 Filipinos work in Israel, nearly all of them as caretakers for the elderly.)

Thinking that she would have to go back to the Philippines, his mother was surprisingly offered the possibility by the affluent Israeli family she was working for as a housekeeper to raise the child in their home.  (The Israeli couple had three older children of their own who became his “siblings,” while his adoptive father, who worked as a lawyer, split his time between Israel and the United Kingdom.)

Filipino Singer Howie Danao
Filipino-Israeli singer and guitar player Howie Danao (center) in southern Israel at the Nova music festival site, where 364 people were murdered by Hamas and Palestinian terrorists on Oct. 7, 2023. Credit: Courtesy.

Despite his luxurious surroundings and upbringing, Danao said that for all his childhood years, he felt that he was different from everyone and not very Israeli even after reaching the semi-finals of the Israeli version of “A Star Is Born” (in Hebrew, “Kochav Nolad,” based on the British “Pop Idol” show) and then being drafted in the Israeli military. Nor did he feel at home during visits to the Philippines.

The Nativ course proved a cathartic moment in the young singer’s life. The program works to define and strengthen Israeli-Jewish-Zionist identity through classroom study, individual instruction, weekly excursions throughout the country, group Shabbat experiences and community work in partnership with the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency for Israel.

Filipino Singer Howie Danao
Filipino-Israeli singer Howie Danao (bottom right) with others as part of a group that volunteered in southern Israel in the months after the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attacks. Credit: Courtesy.

He said participation in the program led him to undergo conversion to Judaism and adopt a religiously observant lifestyle.

“Everything finally made sense,” he said. “There has to be a Creator in everybody’s story,” he said.

Although his secular Roman Catholic biological family didn’t take his conversion well, Danao is at peace with his decision; he said that his mother has come round to his decision seeing it gave him happiness.

“I will always be a Filipino, but I chose to be part of the Jewish nation,” he said. “The fact that I was born here is Divine intervention.”

He has now shifted from pop music to his story of his spiritual journey to Judaism, and musical lectures of love and faith, with an eye out for diplomacy in the future. Of the Jewish people, he noted, “We always say, ‘A Light to the Nations. Well, I am the Nations.”

Volunteerism during wartime

The Oct. 7 Hamas massacre in southern Israel, in which 1,200 people, mostly civilians, were killed, only served to heighten his sense of belonging in Israel.

If anything, the Filipino-Israel said that he felt a renewed sense of shame that he was so disconnected from the rest of the country in his sheltered upbringing in upscale north Tel Aviv, despite his close connection with his adopted family, which he maintains to this day from his current abode in Ramat Gan.

For the first three months of the war, as the country was awash in volunteerism, he set out to southern Israel with a group of drivers delivering supplies to residents and soldiers, While there, he performed for them.

“It was during the war that I fell in love with the country while seeing so much outside of Tel Aviv,” he said.

A breaking point was the 9-year-old orphaned child he met from the hard-hit borderline agricultural community of Kibbutz Be’eri, who hugged him and thanked him for coming. Danao later released a single called “Only Nine.”

Last week, he performed at a Tel Aviv tribute organized by the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants to foreign caretakers who were killed or saved in the Hamas-led attacks and spoke of the special historic bond of friendship between the Filipino and Israeli nations.

“I didn’t just join the Jewish nation,” he said in the interview. “I feel that now I can fulfill my purpose.”

Filipino Singer Howie Danao
Filipino-Israeli singer Howie Danao performed for those recovering from the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks in southern Israel. Credit: Courtesy.
Filipino Singer Howie Danao
Filipino-Israeli singer Howie Danao performed for those recovering from the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks in southern Israel. Credit: Courtesy.
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