by Robert Wiener
An overflow crowd of mourners packed the auditorium at the Cooperman JCC in West Orange Dec. 4 to pay tribute to the lives lost in Mumbai, India, Thanksgiving weekend and condemn the terrorists who killed some 163 people and injured nearly 300 others.
Among those mourned were Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, his wife, Rivkah, and seven other people at Nariman House, the Chabad center in Mumbai.
Their deaths, and the courageous rescue of their two-year-old son Moshe by his Indian nanny, captivated and horrified Jews and non-Jews in many parts of the world.
Some 500 of them filled the JCC’s Levin Theater, and another 300 watched the proceedings on a video monitor in a second-floor room, to hear remarks from Gov. Jon Corzine, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, an Indian-born state assemblyman, and Israeli and local Jewish officials.
“Unfortunately, we hear of tragedies so often that our senses have become numb,” said Miles Berger of Livingston, a board member at the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown who served as master of ceremonies.
“Somehow this was different. Perhaps it was the fact that it unfolded before our own eyes. The media brought us so close to the hostages it was as if they were all standing outside the Chabad House.”
Berger said the “diversity of Jews the house embraced is clear from those who perished in it — a Jew from Brooklyn with a shtreimel, a Mexican Zionist on the way to make aliya, a father from Jerusalem — a living example of the oneness of our people.”
Speaking of the risks the Holtzbergs took in welcoming Jews who passed through Mumbai, Rabbi Moshe Herson, dean of the rabbinical college, said, “Chabad houses must remain open places for all who seek out — emotionally, spiritually, and otherwise. This is why Gavi and Rivkah went to live there. They knew this was not the safest region on the planet.”
Herson urged an immediate congressional investigation of the terrorist attacks.
“The blood of Gavi and Rivkah and the other hostages, the blood of nearly 200 innocent people, the blood of hundreds of wounded lying in hospitals is asking us not to delay,” he said.
Following the rabbi, Corzine told the audience, “We should never, ever, turn the other cheek.”
Then, speaking of Mahatma Gandhi, the Indian pacifist who led the nonviolent struggle that won his nation’s independence from Great Britain, the governor said the events in Mumbai were “a tragedy for the people of India. In a country born of nonviolence, where the son of India taught us that an eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind, we need to stand for everyone, because barbarians may be blind to whom they attack.”
“Israelis, Indians, and Americans share much in common,” said Israel’s deputy consul general in New York, Benjamin Krasna.
“We are all former colonies of the British Empire. We are all democracies where the rule of law remains supreme…. We are peoples who, despite different religions, all embrace the belief that peace and freedom must remain supreme, that the use of force can only be a last resort for all we hold dear.
“Yet no one should ever mistake these beliefs — whether emanating from Jerusalem, New Jersey, or Mumbai — as a sign of weakness.”
Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula (D-Dist. 17) who was born in Nellore, India, reminded the mourners that for many centuries, Jews had lived peacefully in his native land. “This was the first time that was breached,” he said. “It was very sad. But the terrorists do not discriminate, whether you are a Jew, an Indian, a Hindu, or a Muslim. They take lives.”
He urged the audience “to go forward to continue that solidarity and friendship…. This incident continues to remind us we are never safe. We want to make sure we look out for each other.”
Booker said the Latin motto of the United States, E pluribus unum, is “not uniquely an American ideal. It is an ideal of free people all over this globe who believe that race, religion, and even language should not divide us — that we should be one people. Whether it is Lech Walesa talking about solidarity or Nelson Mandela talking about one South Africa, the truth of humanity seeks to unite people and make us strong.”
Noting that the terrorists made a point of choosing “one target simply because it was where Jews reside,” Booker said he had “a very personal understanding of what a shaliah — a Lubavitcher emissary — does.”
As a graduate student in England, Booker, who is African-American, spent time at Oxford University’s Chabad House under the tutelage of Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. “We know that Rabbi Holtzberg and his wife were showing the dignity and the love, the kindness and the respect — reaching out to Jew and non-Jew alike to show the light and the goodness,” said Booker. “Evil rained down upon them because they were Jews.”
“In the African-American community we have a song that says, ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing,’” said the mayor. “We now must be that unified force that views evil and condemns it for what it is. Make this moment not be about the death of those people but about what they lived for…. Now is the time we do mitzvas to mark the kindness of individuals who showed such beauty in the way that they lived.”
Stanley Stone, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey, said, “The horrific events with the killing of Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife, Rivkah, and all other victims has shaken the Jewish community and all other decent citizens around the world. The spirit that Rabbi Holtzberg and his wife brought to their work was to provide unity among the Jewish people. Let us resolve to work even harder to find common ground for the good of our people.”
Sponsors of the program were the Rabbinical College of America, the Central Federation, United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ and JCC MetroWest.
In an emotional close to the 90-minute program, Jacob Koltin, a Holocaust survivor living in West Orange, sang a haunting rendition of “Ani Ma’amin,” “I Believe.”
Inspired by the writings of 12th-century philosopher Moses Maimonides, “Ani Ma’amin” was sung by Jews entering the gas chambers of Nazi concentration camps, becoming known as the Hymn of the Camps.
“I stand here before you with mixed feelings, feelings I cannot erase, feelings I cannot resolve,” said Koltin before he began to sing. “In 1942, during the High Holy Days, 15,000 people went to Treblinka to lose their lives.”
-NJ Jewish News