Alesha Williams Boyd
IIn the tightly knit Chabad Lubavitch community, in which “one family knows the next, who knows the next,” many people had heard of Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife, Rivkah, even if they hadn’t met the couple personally.
The Holtzbergs were among more than 170 killed in last week’s terror attacks by Muslim militants in Mumbai, India. The couple, who ran an outreach center for the Orthodox Jewish Chabad Lubavitch organization, were buried Tuesday after a funeral held at Kfar Chabad, the movement’s Israel headquarters.
More than 300 people from all movements of the Jewish community and others gathered at the Radisson Hotel on Thursday to pay their respects to Holtzberg and others who lost their lives in the attacks and called for unity in the aftermath of their untimely deaths. The event was organized by the Chabad Lubavitch of Western Monmouth County and other local Jewish organizations.
Rabbi Chaim Zaklos of Ontario, Canada, recounted for the crowd his own experiences with the Holtzbergs in Mumbai as a rabbinical assistant in 2006. He recalled taking an hourlong trip on a crude boat to slaughter chickens in Holtzberg’s mission so people throughout India who wanted kosher meat could have it. Zaklos also told of Holtzberg fixing a clogged ritual bath with his own hands to ensure the city had one to use.
“He was basically a one-man show in Mumbai,” Zaklos said, recalling Holtzberg presiding over weddings and circumcisions and doling out smiles and meals for all in need.
When Holtzberg was asked why he would take on the burden of running the outreach center when he could have led a comfortable life in his own country, Zaklos said Holtzberg replied, “Are we here for ourselves, or are we here for the Jewish community, for other people?”
“That’s what he was all about,” Zaklos said.
Rivkah Holtzberg’s words echoed hauntingly from a documentary about the couple, edited only last night by Jewish Educational Media.
“We knew upfront what we were getting into,” Rivkah Holtzberg, who was five-months pregnant, said about her work as an emissary in her then-new home in Mumbai. “It’s our pleasure.”
The couple’s 2-year-old son, Moshe, covered in blood following the attack, was rescued by a Chabad employee who heard his cries, according to Chabad leaders. The boy is now in the care of a grandmother.
Attendees on Thursday expressed anger and horror at reports that Jews had been among the victims targeted in the Mumbai attacks.
“Hearing that (Jews) may have been targeted the worst, that’s really horrifying,” said Risa Doris, 64, a congregant at Temple Beth Ahm in Aberdeen. “(Jews) have been there for 1,000 years. There was a shift in the world when that occurred.”
But Chabad leaders called upon attendees, who also included Manalapan Township Mayor Michelle Roth, Deputy Mayor Susan Cohen and Rep. Frank J. Pallone Jr., to funnel their pain from the tragedy into doing something positive for others, as they believe the Holtzbergs would have wanted.
“In the time of greatest pain and tragedy, we have to find a way of taking that painful energy and transforming it into doing a positive goodness,” said Rabbi Avraham Bernstein, who had met the couple at Chabad gatherings in New York. “Through that, we are able to rebuild what was destroyed. . . . That’s what Rabbi Holtzberg dedicated his life to doing in India.”
Rabbi Boruch Chazanow said there would likely never be any answers for mourners seeking justice and trying to make sense of the tragedy. He called upon attendees, many of whom expressed anger and frustration about the attacks, to work instead toward unity, devotion to their faith, and remembrance of those people lost.
“The answer, my friends, is it doesn’t make sense. We in this room may not have answers, but we do have a response,” Chazanow said. “If 10 monsters can band together and cause so much destruction, think how much good we can do.”