Editor’s Note: On Nov. 26, 2008 – the Hebrew date was Cheshvan 29, which this year fell on Monday, Nov. 16 – Islamic terrorists went on a savage killing spree in Mumbai, India, murdering 179 people including Chabad emissaries Rabbi Gavriel and Rivkah Holtzberg. The following tribute to the Holtzbergs was written by Rabbi Holtzberg’s sister.
The lives Gabi and Rivky led were beyond comprehension; there are so many people they touched, so many stories they inspired. I have selected a few personal recollections and touching moments that exemplify just how truly amazing they were.
I thought I knew my brother. I was proven wrong during the week of shiva and the difficult days that followed, as incredible stories kept pouring in about him and his eishes chayil Rivky. I feel so privileged to have been his baby sister and I treasure the special closeness we shared. I will always remember all those heart to heart conversations we shared as teenagers that would last all night.
I will never forget the time I was in high school and Gabi was studying in yeshiva in Jerusalem and he agreed to do my 40-page research paper on the topic of ahavas Yisrael, love of a fellow Jew. How he exemplified this great deed!
We believed it before, but to hear from so many complete strangers whom he helped not only reaffirmed and strengthened our love and
appreciation for him, it empowered us to be better ourselves.
The mitzvah of mikveh exemplifies the self-sacrifice of Gabi and Rivky. Before they eventually constructed the beautiful Mei Menachem in Mumbai, Rivky would fly six hours each way to use the mikveh in Thailand. I remember how proud they were at their own mikveh dedication. Until their last day they dedicated all their energies to ensure the mikveh in Mumbai was in tip-top shape. In fact, Gabi and Rivky both stayed up until 3 in the morning on November 26 cleaning and preparing their mikveh.
Gabi had such strength of character. He was utterly selfless, never putting his feelings in front of anyone else’s. There are two incidents that stand out as I think about his childhood years.
When my brother was 14, fresh off his bar mitzvah, he was sent to yeshiva in Argentina. One morning he went into the shul and was shocked to discover his precious new tefillin were gone. Stolen.
Gabi never informed our parents of this until much later. He taught himself how to read from the Torah and found a local shul in need of a weekly reader. Every week he would save the $50 he earned until he was able to purchase a new pair of tefillin for himself. He didn’t have the heart to ask my parents to buy a new pair again.
The other incident occurred when the Jewish center (also known as the Amia), right next to the yeshiva, was bombed by terrorists.
Understandably, my parents were frantic to hear from Gabi. My mother immediately called the yeshiva and asked to speak with him. We were shocked to hear that Gabi – a boy of 14 – had volunteered to participate in the rescue and recovery efforts, helping to locate bodies among the rubble of the collapsed building. His noble character was evident even as a young child.
Gabi and Rivky chose to live in Mumbai because that was where they were needed. They went there knowing the difficulty of being so far away from family and friends and the comforts of the community.
Rivky would bake bread every day from scratch. Gabi would shecht and kasher hundreds of chickens every week. They chose this way of life because Mumbai needed a rabbi. Mumbai needed a rebbetzin. There were Jews in need and Gabi and Rivky heeded their call.
Gabi and Rivky’s Chabad House was a beacon of light, the home away from home for so many. There was not a Jew who went to Mumbai who was not welcomed. Gabi, like Avraham Avinu, literally went out into the streets to bring people into his home.
Two years ago, my parents were fortunate to spend Pesach with Gabi and Rivky. Looking at their worn-out couches, my mother asked Rivky, “What happened to your couches? They were brand new!” To which Rivky responded: “They are not our couches; they belong to everyone here!”
To Gabi and Rivky, nothing was impossible; the word was not even in their vocabulary.
They were so excited when their offer of $700,000 for the purchase of the six-story Chabad House was accepted. They would finally have the necessary space to expand and to offer more programs to the Jews of Mumbai. It was a dream come true for them.
They were still overjoyed when told they would have to pay for it all in cash. Even when the owner wanted a million dollars more and everyone thought Gabi would drop the idea and move on, he did not. He became even more determined to make this dream a reality. The additional million was raised in an astonishingly short period of time and the building was paid for, in cash.
Nothing – nothing – was too hard or overwhelming for them. Their love of and dedication to their work knew no bounds.
Gabi paid out of his own pocket for coupons enabling incarcerated Jews to buy necessary items in prison. And he spent much of his money bribing prison guards to let him enter so that he could visit around Jewish holidays.
He ignited the spark in so many Jewish souls – even those who might have thought they had been forgotten. Gabi was there for them. He was there for everyone.
My mother recalls how, when she was there for Pesach, a female prisoner was released after years of incarceration. Rivky threw a party the way only she knew how to. She cooked a gourmet meal and greeted the woman as happily and warmly as if she were her own sister.
During shiva week, someone sat down and told us that when he was in India, he, like all too many Israeli youths backpacking through the country, became addicted to drugs. His emotional health deteriorated to the point where his father had to come to India to bring him back home to Israel. His condition was so bad that when he arrived at the airport he was not allowed to board the flight for fear of endangering passengers and crew. The father didn’t know what to do. No hotel was ready to admit them either.
Realizing he had no other choice, he turned for help to the Israeli ambassador in India. The ambassador sent them to the Chabad House where they were welcomed with open arms. My brother spent days and nights with the young man and helped him through rehabilitation. All this simply because he was a Jew who needed his help.
Gabi was not a social worker or a psychologist, but the nature of his job required that he be one to so many lost souls searching and yearning for some sort of connection.
This young man then told us, “Gabi introduced me to my wife, with whom I live so happily today. I owe my life to him.” At that point he began to weep.
During the tsunami that ravaged the region in 2004, Gabi risked his life by traveling five days across the country just to locate a missing American girl. He took a satellite phone with him so the girl would be able to call home and comfort her worried parents, who had contacted Gabi directly when they saw the news.
So many people owe their lives to my brother and sister-in-law. A cousin who spent six months at the Chabad House was a witness to the following story.
There was a man who resided in the Chabad House for two years while waiting for his son to be released from prison. While there, he became very ill and had to undergo a heart procedure. He begged my brother to take him to the local hospital. My brother refused.
Instead, he took him to a fully modernized medical center and hired a private surgeon to provide the man the help he needed. He did all this happily and without a second thought, though it cost him thousands of dollars. There was no dollar amount in the world that would impede Gabi from fulfilling his mission, that would prevent him from assisting others.
Another woman who came during shiva week told us how a friend of her daughter had come to the Chabad House and mentioned to my sister-in-law that she would be leaving the next day on a long trip up north.
“Don’t forget to stop by and say goodbye before you go,” Rivky said to her. When the girl returned the next day to bid farewell, she was shocked to find no less than thirty sandwiches waiting for her to take along on the trip. Each sandwich was carefully wrapped so that it would last a long period of time. Each roll was hand baked with so much love. The flour was sifted so carefully and the spreads were all prepared from scratch.
“My daughter’s friend,” our visitor related, “was so touched that she promised she would always keep kosher. She said if you could do it in India, you could do it anywhere.”
When we were walking away from the burial at the Mount of Olives cemetery in Jerusalem, a diamond merchant by the name of Naava came over and told us how Gabi would come to her hotel room and personally deliver Rivky’s warm, delicious food. Once when he came she noticed he had butterfly stitches on his forehead. When he told her a board fell on his head, she said, “Oh my! That’s terrible!” Gabi responded with his signature smile, “Don’t feel bad! I am so happy that it fell on me. Just imagine – it could’ve fallen on another Jew, God forbid.”
That was my brother.
i would like to share a few words about my nephew Moishele. It is known that before Hashem sends a makah, an illness or tragedy, he first creates the refuah, the cure. Moishele is our refuah – the miracle the world witnessed as his brave nanny Sandra rushed out from the Chabad House clutching him tightly in her arms.
Moishele gave us reason to hope. He continues to give us the strength to endure.
He was Gabi and Rivky’s miracle child even before this episode. He was the light of their lives. He shared and continues to share such an amazing connection with his parents. He feels their presence constantly. Recently, in preparation for his third birthday, Moishele, as is customary, began wearing tzitzis. He was so excited, running around the house kissing them right and left. He stopped in front of a picture of his parents and put his tzitzis to their lips so that they too could partake in his mitzvah.
My parents recently spent a month with Moishele over the summer in Israel. My father sang niggunim, chassidic chants, with him for hours. There was one particular niggun Gabi loved. It was the niggun of my ancestor, Reb Michele Zlotchever. This niggun also happened to have been chanted by the thousands of mourners at the burial on the Mount of Olives.
After completing the song, my father noticed a change in Moishele’s demeanor. He was in another world, a sad expression clearly visible. And so my father prepared to sing a more upbeat niggun. But before he could begin, Moishele asked that they sing Reb Zlotchever’s niggun gain. Upon finishing it, Moishele wanted to repeat the niggun yet again. They continued singing the niggun together over and over.
That Shabbos, while sitting at the table, Moishele began singing. He was singing his father’s beloved niggun.
Baruch Hashem, every day provides us with renewed strength. Life must go on and it is up to Gabi and Rivky’s family to go forward with their special work. We therefore must take it upon ourselves to continue where they left off. Thankfully, they provided us with a great blueprint.
Gabi and Rivky, you gave so much to the world and accomplished so many great things during your relatively brief lives. We promise to avenge your blood. We will do so by continuing your mission: making the world a better place. We will wake up each morning and realize that every second we have on this earth is not just a gift, but a special opportunity for us to make a difference.
I would like to close by asking everyone reading this to take upon yourself one more mitzvah, one more deed, in Gabi and Rivky’s memory. May we merit from this to see the ultimate revelation of goodness in the world with the coming of Moshiach, speedily in our days.
Rikal Kaler lives in Baltimore with her husband and their daughter Rivky, born nine months after the tragic events in Mumbai.