By Michele Munz, ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Olivette — Rabbi Yosef Landa stood before 36 teen girls at a Jewish high school on Tuesday and encouraged them to transform their sadness over the terrorist attacks last week in India into something that brings goodness into the world.
One of the attacks’ targets was a Jewish community center in Mumbai run by a rabbi from New York and his wife. Landa urged the students to focus on the thousands of lives touched by the couple rather than how the two were among more than 170 killed across the city.
“Try to find something concrete you can do,” Landa, 53, told the students at Louis and Sarah Block Yeshiva High School in Olivette. “Turn your feelings into something that brings good and lightness to the world.”
The New York couple were Landa’s fellow messengers of Chabad, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish philosophy that sends emissaries around the world to reach out and support local Jewish populations at Chabad “houses.”
Landa is the director of the Chabad of Greater St. Louis, which includes three Chabad houses — in University City, Chesterfield and the campus of Washington University — as well as an educational supply store in Creve Coeur. The houses coordinate workshops for Jewish lawyers, classes for moms and their toddlers, whatever the need may be.
Chabad took root more than 200 years ago in Russia, and the origins of today’s organization can be traced to Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Rebbe, or leader, who took over in the 1940s. He set in motion an array of programs and services to guide Jews struggling after the Holocaust. The movement is based in New York.
The effort started out as a few Chabad houses across the United States and has since grown to meet the needs in remote places around the world. Today, Chabad emissaries direct more than 3,300 houses and institutions.
Landa moved to St. Louis from New York in 1981. He is now joined by three other emissary families.
Some emissaries like the New York couple — Rabbi Gavriel Noach Holtzberg, 29, and his wife, Rivkah, 28 — move with their families to foreign cities, such as Mumbai. They arrived in the Indian city five years ago and grew their Chabad house into a six-story building that included a kosher restaurant, library, day care and their home. They were a beacon to Israeli backpackers, traveling businessmen and some 4,000 Jews living in Mumbai.
As news of the their deaths, and the rescue of their 2-year-old son, spread through the Jewish community, stories have poured into the Chabad website about their hospitality, selflessness and dedication.
“This was just one little couple,” Landa told the high school students. “Each and every one of us has that power. We have to stop thinking of ourselves as so small — that is the best way to overcome this evil, to overcome this pain.”
In response to the killings, Chabad leaders have encouraged Jews to perform “mitzvos,” the 613 Jewish commandments that include such things as visiting the sick and giving to charities. In a broader sense, a mitzvah means any act of human kindness. Jews believe they bring one closer to God and make the world a better place.
And rabbis, like Landa, are visiting schools to inspire students and organizing tributes to the Holtzbergs and seven others killed in the Chabad house in Mumbai. A tribute will be held at 1 p.m. Sunday at the Jewish Community Center’s Millstone Campus in Creve Coeur. It’s dubbed, “Turning Darkness into Light.”
GANDHI CENTER OBSERVANCE
The tribute won’t be the only local one for Mumbai victims. Various Indian groups are also planning an observance at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at the Mahatma Gandhi Cultural Center in Ballwin for the more than 8,000 Indians in the region.
Ashwin Patel, a local grocer, former president of the India Association of St. Louis and a trustee of the Hindu Temple of St. Louis, said he is grateful for the support that has come from the community. He received an e-mail from the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis condemning the killings.
“The foundation would like to make it clear that in no way does this behavior reflect the beliefs or practices in the religion of Islam,” the e-mail said. “These attacks are simply selfish, misguided acts motivated solely by extremist thought.”
Like the Chabad tribute, the Indian observance will not focus on the negative.
“There will be a moment of silence and a few speakers,” Patel said. “It won’t go on too long. We want to remember what happened, but not dwell on it.”
Rabbi Gabriel Munk, the principal of the Louis and Sarah Block Yeshiva High School, said he was grateful to have Landa speak to his students. Some within the faith, he said, think the Mumbai attacks were intended as a message that Jews have gone astray and need to mend their ways.
“Chabad says forget that. What can we do to not let his evil take hold?” Munk said. “Let’s be stronger at what we do. That is the message of Chabad.”