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Diamonds in Bombai

In the weeks following the tragic deaths of Rabbi Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg, the Rebbe’s emissaries to Bombai, India, countless stories have been related by the many people whose lives they touched: Residents, tourists, students and guests who passed through the Bombai Chabad House.

At the Bombai Chabad House, the Holtzbergs hosted countless Israeli tourists and businessmen. Their visitors also included many diamond dealers, as Bombai is an international center for the diamond trade. Rabbi Gavriel would personally slaughter hundreds of chickens each week, and Rivka would clean and salt them herself, to provide kosher food for all their guests.

The Bombai Jewish community is a historic one. The main Jewish community consists of 3,500 or so Bene Israel, who settled in India over 2,000 years ago. There are several hundred families of Iraqi origin, who settled in Bombay 250 years ago to escape persecution. It also includes a dozen or so Israeli families, working in the Israeli consulate or other businesses. The Holtzbergs have exerted a strong influence over the local community through their varied activities, from Shabbat and holiday programs, to a preschool and day camp. Several families began keeping Shabbat and Kosher thanks to the Holtzbergs; others were persuaded to their children to yeshivot in Israel. The son of the Israeli consul chose to celebrate his Bar Mitzvah with Chabad.

Three years ago, the Holtzbergs built a kosher mikvah according to the most stringent halachic specifications. It was quite gratifying for them to inaugurate this building, which is so sacred in Judaism that it even takes precedence over building a synagogue.

The Holtzbergs also worked with the local Indian community, teaching them the seven Noachide laws. They found it easy to get along with the Indians, who are people of deep faith and have little animosity towards Jews.

In an interview with Beis Moshiach magazine in 2005, Rivka shared some of her own inspiring stories of her mission in Bombai:

“There was a man, an executive of Zim, the Israeli shipping company, who lived in Bombai a number of years. Shortly after we moved to Bombai, he came to us to ask for help. He was seeking a blessing for a relative of his, a young child who had been diagnosed with a serious illness and was facing a life-threatening surgery.

“We advised him to write to the Rebbe and ask for a blessing via Igrot Kodesh, the Rebbe’s published letters. He and his wife sat down and did so, with broken hearts. They placed the letter at random into a volume of the Rebbe’s published letters, and when they opened it they were in for a surprise: The letter was a famous one that the Rebbe had written to a manager at Zim, on the importance of keeping Shabbat aboard the shipping vessels. The Rebbe concludes the letter with blessings for success.

“The executive took upon himself to keep Shabbat, and the surgery was successful beyond anyone’s expectations. The illness went into remission and we hope it will never reappear.”

An Israeli woman, touring in Bombai, found herself in an acute dilemma: She had lost her passport somewhere in the teeming streets of Bombai, and since it was a legal holiday in India, she had no way to arrange for a new one, and had missed her flight. Now she was stranded in a strange country, desperate for a friendly face who would be a source of comfort and support in her predicament.

Almost unwillingly, she found herself heading towards the Chabad House of Bombai. It was not like her to simply drop in on strange people. Yet she had heard of this legendary family whose door was open to every stranded traveler. Showing up at the Holtzberg’s doorstep, she was greeted with warmth and enthusiasm, and was soon partaking in a delectable Shabbat meal prepared by Rivky herself. Over the next few days, the Holtzbergs’ home became her base as she made arrangements to replace her lost passport and fly back to Israel. After a week, she left India, no longer a stranded traveler but a close friend, nay, a member of the family.

One of Rabbi Gavriel’s little-known activities was the help and support he would give to Israelis who had been arrested for various crimes and caught up in the Indian prison system. Ronen was one such young man, arrested on drug charges. His parents arrived in Bombai to help him, and the Chabad House became their base. The Holtzbergs hosted them as well as directed them every step of the way, from finding a lawyer to navigating the maze of the Indian prison system.

After Ronen’s parents left back to Israel, Rabbi Gavriel did not forget him. Every week, Rabbi Gavriel or one of his associates came to visit Ronen, sometimes bringing with them letters from his family back in Israel. Rabbi Gavriel provided Ronen with money to buy snacks as well as personal items for himself, an absolute necessity in the unsanitary conditions he was held in. Rabbi Gavriel attended Ronen’s court appearances and convinced (or bribed) officials to allow him various favors, such as food packages and longer visits. More than the physical assistance he brought, Rabbi Gavriel was a constant source of spiritual support and warmth, which sustained Ronen throughout his difficult ordeal.

Rabbi Gavriel and his wife Rivka were senselessly, brutally murdered by terrorists; the home they had built, open to all, was turned into a shambles. Yet miraculously, their young son Moshe was rescued from the ruins. Moshe’s grandparents have vowed to bring him up as the Rebbe’s emissary, and to return with him to India to continue the mission for which his parents gave their lives. May their memory be a blessing.

 

 


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