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Throngs of Mourners Touched by Holtzberg Couple

Chabad supporters, rabbis, and Israeli businessmen pay their last respects at the funeral of Rabbi Gavriel (Gabi) and Rivka (Rivki) Holtzberg, the two Chabad emissaries killed in the Mumbai terrorist attacks.

A tractor blocks off traffic from approaching the 770 Chabad House replica of its Brooklyn counterpart in Kfar Chabad, a pastoral village of over 1,000 families, a few miles south of Tel-Aviv. Not far from the five buses that came in from Afula - the home town of Rivki Holtzberg’s parents - a lone white donkey brays. Today, the loudspeakers carry the speeches of public figures and family members, paying their final respects to Gabi and Rivki Holtzberg, who ran the Chabad House in Mumbai, until terrorists cut their lives short last week.

A Second Home to Many

A man donning a white skullcap embossed with Hebrew letters, “Chabad House of Mumbai” stands out among the throng of residents and Chabad representatives. “I know them (the Holtzbergs) much better than those who came to the funeral out of respect but don’t know them personally,” he states. His name is Ari Cohen, and he is an Israeli businessman who travels to Mumbai monthly.

While in Mumbai, Ari would stay at the Holtzman’s home each evening. “Their house was like a second home to me,” explains Ari, who has travelled to India forty times. The last time that Ari was at the Holtzman’s Chabad House was two months ago, where he stayed for a week and participated in prayers and Torah lectures given by Rabbi Holtzman.

“They were special people, especially the rabbi’s wife,” Ari recollects, while holding back his tears, “It’s one thing for a man to go to a remote location, far from a Jewish community. It’s another thing for a woman. What an amazing woman, so willing to forsake the ease of living in a Jewish community and enduring the hardships in raising her child over there (in India).”

Ari recalls many times that Rabbi Holtzman would assist and encourage Israeli backpackers who had gotten involved with the wrong end of the law while in India.

Paying for Your Supper with Deeds

Itay, also a businessman, was told by Ari, his friend, to check out the Mumbai Chabad House on his next trip to India. Itay was happy to receive a homemade kosher meal, which is hard to obtain in India, at the Holtzman’s Chabad House. Each day, Rivki Holtzman would serve between twenty to thirty tourists supper. Rabbi Gabi, as he was affectionately known, would demand an unusual form of payment from his guests. Their “payment” was either to say a Torah thought, perform a good deed, or to strengthen their personal connection to Judaism.

“At the end of a long work day, I would go to the Chabad House to eat supper and listen to a Torah lecture,” Itay recalls, “This past Rosh HaShanah, I was there. Although the Holtzbergs weren’t in India at the time, the Chabad House programs continued to run smoothly.”

Will Itay continue to conduct business in Mumbai in the aftermath of the terrorist attack? “I surely will be more careful. This tragedy wasn’t something that you could’ve stopped. But I think that it’s important to see that security will be beefed up, in order to ensure the protection of Jews there,” Itay remarks.

Itay thinks that it will be at least psychologically beneficial for Chabad to step-up security at their worldwide centers. “In order that the Jews will continue to come, it’s important that there will be security in place. Otherwise, Jews will make alternative arrangements for kosher food in their hotels.”

Spreading Light

Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vows that the Mumbai Chabad center would be renamed after the couple, whose two-year-old son Moshe was saved by the Holtzbergs' nanny when she snatched him up and fled the terrorist-infested building.

He tells Chabad emissaries, "This is not a time to think or ask questions but for action. The answer to terror will not be given with tanks and grenades. Such cruelty can only be fought against by spreading light."

“We will rebuild it and make it the most beautiful Chabad house in the world. It will be called the Gabi and Rivki Holtzberg Chabad Center," Rabbi Kotlarsky says. He continues with a message to the Holtzberg’s son: “Moshe, when you grow-up, it”ll be your Chabad House to go back to.” The rabbi mentioned that the memories of the other victims who perished in the Chabad House massacre should be remembered for the good.

“We love you and will miss you,” Rabbi Kotlarsky says his departing words while a resident of war-torn Sderot blows his two-foot long ram’s horn as a sign of unity and homage to the deceased. “Prayers won’t help at all if there’s no unity among the Jewish People,” the Sderot man says. 

Feeling the Pain

A contingent of 115 Americans studying in Israel this year at the Torat Shraga yeshiva in Jerusalem also came to the funeral. Although they did not know the couple personally, their teachers felt that it was important to interrupt their learning in order to participate in the event. “If something happens to klal Yisrael [the Jewish People], we have to come together to attach ourselves to their pain,” Charlie from Cedarhurst, New York states. “That’s why we’re here today,” he says.

Charlie and his fellow yeshiva students were studying and praying for the welfare of the Mumbai hostages, and will continue to study in memory of the victims.

Charlie’s says his parents are not overly concerned about his safety in the wake of the Mumbai attacks: “It’s my second year in Israel. I was here during the Merkaz HaRav [yeshivah] tragedy. My parents aren’t so worried. It’s not the first time….” Charlie cuts short his sentence mid-way, looking at the clear-blue Israeli sky, hoping that the tragedy will indeed be the Jewish People’s last.

Planting Seeds

Moshe Chen, a Kfar Chabad resident for thirty years, expresses his shock about the deaths of the Holtzberg couple: “When there’s a terrorist attack, it hurts you. When it’s your own family, it doubly hurts you. The feelings are really difficult, because this is a personal tragedy.”

Moshe explains why it was appropriate for the funeral to take place in front of the 770 Chabad House in Kfar Chabad: “It is symbolic, the Rebbe’s home, which has been in existence for more than twenty years. We built the entire home in seven straight weeks. I was about six. I also remember adding some cement to his home."

The home, an exact duplicate of Chabad brownstone World Headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, was intended for Chabad’s rabbinical leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who planned to live there. Among the palm trees stands an elm tree which sprang from a seed that was taken from an elm standing at the entrance to the Brooklyn headquarters. Moshe describes affectionately how the lone seed was lovingly cultivated in a country with vastly different climatic conditions. Much like the lone seed in a foreign area, the Chabad emissaries travel to places outside their turf, planting seeds of Torah learning into the hearts of their charges.

In 1956, fedayeen terrorists entered Kfar Chabad’s synagogue during morning prayers and murdered five children and one teacher, injuring another ten. In order to calm the residents’ fears in the aftermath of the terrorist attack, the Rebbe stated, “This is my home. Anyone who stays will be given a blessing for their personal protection.” “Therefore, it is symbolic and fitting that the funeral procession takes place here, the Rebbi’s home,” Moshe concludes.



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