By Barbara Sofer
This Hebrew month of Kislev, the season of Hanukka, began with a call-up for candlelighters. Last Friday, the first day of Kislev, the words of Hallel in my Jerusalem synagogue sounded like a cry of anguish: Please, God, save now! But then our worst fears were confirmed: Terrorists had murdered Rivka and Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, directors of the Chabad House in Mumbai, and their house guests.
In the Diaspora, where the sun had not yet set, Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, chairman of the educational and social services arm of Chabad-Lubavitch, turned to Jewish women through the media, which for a moment were focused on the world family of Lubavitch. Light Shabbat candles, he urged, not for the death of the Holtzbergs, but as a fulfillment of their lives’ mission: bringing light.
Thank you, Chabad. Thank you to the thousands of emissaries who brave Herculean challenges to bring Yiddishkeit to the world. Thank you to their parents, who part from tender young couples who will relocate, not for a semester, but for a lifetime.
The Lubavitch shluchim whom Rabbi Menahem Schneerson charged with ministering to the Jewish people everywhere in the world are known as tzva Hashem, God’s army. The military terminology isn’t metaphorical. Only those with a soldier’s strength and stoicism can take on the harsh conditions, the constant discomfort of blazing trails of Judaism through rugged terrain. They head for the wilderness at the difficult period of life when they’re bringing up small children. They set up shop in lands with archaic medical infrastructure, far from supportive family and friends, not to mention kosher stores, Jewish schools and synagogues. They bring into the intimacy of their home local and visiting Jews, masses of back-packers, and the ragged and soul-weary.
It’s a lifetime service – what we call in Israel tzva keva, the standing army. In Laos and Cambodia, in frozen Siberia, there’s nothing watered-down about their Yiddishkeit, but they have a talent for sharing Jewish tradition without eliciting antagonism – an antidote for many who associate religion with coerciveness and politics.
It’s not all cheerful dinners. On TV this week, a now-reformed Israeli told how when he sat in an Indian prison for drugs, Rabbi Holtzberg visited him and brought him books and hope. And there’s the chronic need for fund-raising. Each Chabad House is independent, and the directors need to raise their own operating budget. That includes the festive meals that all of us Jewish travelers enjoy when we’re touring or working abroad. The comforts of Shabbat on the road are also made possible by the sacrifices of these young people.
And the most amazing part of all is that they do all this and make us feel welcome almost as if we’re doing them a favor and not the other way around.
This national service is the mission of both men and women. In Mumbai, the Holtzbergs hosted thousands of guests, young and old, provided classes and religious services. Despite media descriptions of Rivky as “the rabbi’s wife,” she served as co-director of the center. Over the past two decades, in the memory of the late Rabbanit Chaya Mushka Schneerson, Chabad women have taken on more formal roles of teaching, organizing outreach activities and counseling visitors. Terror victim Norma Shvarzblat-Rabinovich was reportedly getting help from Rivky on paperwork to move to Israel.
Jewish travelers like to swap personal Chabad travel stories. One repeating theme is the wonder at the mix of people sitting side by side at Shabbat tables, breaking halla together. You might meet an acquaintance from Petah Tikva or Poughkeepsie, backpackers from Haifa and Halifax, and an itinerant rabbi or two. Two of the slain this week, Benzion Chroman, a Bobov hassid, and Leibish Teitelbaum, a Volover hassid, were kashrut supervisors. At the gracious Chabad table in Beijing, my husband and I once sat across from three road-weary kashrut inspectors representing three different kosher certifications. They’d spent the weekdays traveling over broken roads to the backwaters of China to inspect food production plants. (If I’d ever thought that certain canned fruit and vegetable products didn’t really require kosher certification, I changed my mind after hearing their reports.)
In Jerusalem those men might never have eaten at each other’s tables or at the home of a Lubavitch hassid, for that matter, but on the road, Jews of all persuasions join together. That spirit of unity pervaded the unamenable arena of Israeli media coverage this week. As we followed every detail of the horrific tragedy in Mumbai, no one spoke of the victims being secular, religious or haredi. They were simply “Israelis.”
How did this attack on a Chabad House fit into the plans of the Mumbai terrorists? According to The New York Times, the Chabad House was an “unlikely target” of the terrorist gunmen who unleashed their series of bloody coordinated attacks at locations in and around Mumbai’s commercial centers – “It is not known if the Jewish center was strategically chosen, or if it was an accidental hostage scene.”
Let’s look at the other targets: two famous hotels, a tourist cafe, a hospital, movie theater, police barracks. To those of us who live with terrorism, these are all familiar choices of those who want to destabilize the Western world. In addition are the Jewish targets: bar or bat mitzva gatherings, synagogue services, a Passover Seder. Let’s not pretend otherwise: At the heart of international jihad lies odium for Israel and Jews.
Much about the terror attack in India remains hazy, but from the beginning Indian officials reported the meticulous preparation and professional execution of the terrorists’ strategy. Who can imagine that those who knew the floor plan of the giant Taj Mahal Palace Hotel better than the hotel’s security agents would stumble by accident on a hassidic center in a metropolis of nearly 20 million people? It’s about as likely as a truck accidentally running into a Djerba synagogue in April 2002 or it being by chance that that wheelchair-bound terror victim tossed into the sea on the Achille Lauro in 1985 was a Jew.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni affirmed that the Chabad House was indeed attacked as a symbol of the Jewish people.
Chabad Houses go way beyond symbolism; they’re outposts of the Jewish people living and reclaiming our heritage. Thank you, Chabad. We owe it to your emissaries, who sacrifice so much for the Jewish people, to carry out their mission after their deaths. Lighting candles is a good place to start. But then we must go further to make our homes reflect the values of their Chabad House. The Chabad army fights with bowls of chicken soup, tefillin and the light of candlesticks, with loving-kindness and openness to the other, even when it’s not convenient.
Conscription time is right now. Kislev 5769.