Dec 17, 2008 — Hillary Lewin, an alumna of Stern College for Women who is studying at Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology, traveled to Mumbai in the summer as part of a course on Global Health run by the Institute for Public Health Sciences at Yeshiva University. While the group was there, they were hosted to meals at Chabad House, where they mey Rabbi Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg. After the attacks, Lewin wrote the following piece, extracts of which appeared in “The Jerusalem Post,” “Jewish Week” and Arutz Sheva.
Many of you first heard of the Holtzberg family when news of the Mumbai hostage situation emerged. I feel compelled to write this letter, because I want the world to know who Rivky and Gabi Holtzberg were in life and to tell you what I witnessed of their accomplishments in their brief 28 years on earth. While I am devastated by their death, I am thankful that my life and so many others were touched by their purity, friendship and spirit.
Before I entered the Chabad House in Mumbai, I thought, “What kind of people would leave a comfortable and secure life in a religious community to live in the middle of Mumbai; a dirty, difficult, crowded city?” As I got to know Rivky and Gabi over the course of this past summer, I understood that G-d creates some truly special people willing to devote their lives to bettering the world.
I was first welcomed by Rivky, who had a big smile on her face and her baby, Moishie, in her arms. She ushered me and my fellow travelers into the Chabad House and immediately offered us something to eat and a sofa to rest on. We quickly became good friends. We bonded with the Holtzberg family and the staff at Chabad, including Sandra, the heroine who saved baby Moishie’s life.
Like his parents, Moishe is a sweet, loving, happy baby. He was so attached to Rivky and Gabi. He got so excited to sing Shabbat Z’mirot [songs] every Friday night with his father, and I could tell by the light on Gabi’s face when they were singing together, that he looked forward to it too. It breaks my heart that I can still hear Moishie’s voice calling, “Ima, Ima, Ima”, and she will no longer be able to hold him or rock him in her arms.
On my second Shabbat at Chabad, Rivky told me there were two Israeli men staying at the house who were just released from an Indian prison. When I saw these men sitting at the dinner table, I was startled. One man had only a front tooth and a raggedy pony tail, and the other looked like an Israeli version of Rambo. I observed the way that Gabi interacted with them and how they were welcomed at the Shabbat table the same way everyone else was, and my fears melted away. Over the course of the night, I learned that these men were not the only prisoners or ex-convicts the Holtzbergs helped. Gabi frequently brought kosher meals to Israelis in prison, spent time with them, listened to their life stories, and took them in after their release.
I realized that Gabi and Rivky’s job was not only to run a Chabad House and provide warm meals and beds for weary Jewish travelers; it was much greater.
The Holtzbergs were running a remarkable operation. They took their jobs as shlichim [emissaries] very seriously. Their lives never stopped. There was no such thing as “personal space” or “downtime”. The phones rang constantly, people came in and out like a subway station, and all the while Rivky and Gabi were calm, smiling, warm, and welcomed everyone like family.
Rivky spent each day cooking dinner with the chefs for 20-40 people, while Gabi made sure to provide meat for everyone by going to the local markets and schechting [kosher slaughtering] them himself. They also provided travelers with computers for Internet access, so that they wouldn’t have to pay for Internet cafes. They even took care of our laundry. Having spent much time abroad, it was clear to me that Rivky and Gabi were unusual tzadikim [righteous people].
On my last Shabbat in India, I slept in Rivky and Gabi’s home, the 5th floor of the Chabad house. I noticed that their apartment was dilapidated and bare. They had only a sofa, a bookshelf, a bedroom for Moishie, and a bedroom to sleep in. The paint peeled from the walls, and there were hardly any decorations. Yet, the guest quarters on the two floors below were decorated exquisitely, with American-style beds, expansive bathrooms, air conditioning (a luxury in India) and marble floors.
We called these rooms our “healing rooms” because life was so difficult in Mumbai during the week. We knew that when we came to Chabad, Rivky and Gabi would take care of us just like our parents, and their openness and kindness would rejuvenate us for the week to come.
The juxtaposition of their home to the guest rooms was just another example of what selfless, humble people Rivky and Gabi were. They were more concerned about the comfort of their guests than their own.
The Holtzbergs’ Shabbat table was a new experience each week. Backpackers, businessmen, diplomats and diamond dealers gathered together to connect with their heritage. We always knew we were in for a surprise where an amazing story would be told, either by Gabi or a guest at the table.
For each meal, Gabi prepared about seven different divrei Torah [words of Torah] to share. Though most of them were delivered in Hebrew (and I caught about 25 percent), his wisdom, knowledge and ability to inspire amazed me. Rivky and Gabi were accepting of everyone who walked through their doors, and they had no hidden agendas.
Rivky once told me that there was one holiday where they had no guests. It was just herself, Gabi and Moishie. I expected her to say how relieved she was not to have guests, but she told me it was, in fact, the only lonely holiday they ever spent in India.
I remember asking Gabi if he was afraid of potential terror threats. Although his demeanor was so sweet and gentle, Gabi was also very strong-minded and determined. He told me simply and sharply that if the terrorists were to come, “be my guest, because I’m not leaving this place.” Both he and Rivky believed that their mission in Mumbai was far greater than any potential terror threats.
Everything Rivky and Gabi did came from their dedication, love and commitment to the Jewish people and to G-d. I cannot portray in words how remarkable this couple was.
If there is anything practical that I can suggest in order to elevate their souls, please try to light candles on Friday night for Shabbat, improve relationships with family members and friends, try to connect to others the way that Rivky and Gabi did—with love, acceptance and open arms. There is so much to learn from them. May their names and influence live on, and inspire us in acts of kindness and love.