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Celebration, sadness at opening of Berlin mikvah

Ribbon-cutting ceremony for the mikvah at the Rohr Chabad Center in Berlin on Nov. 30, 2008. (Toby Axelrod)

Ribbon-cutting ceremony for the mikvah at the Rohr Chabad Center in Berlin on Nov. 30, 2008. (Toby Axelrod)

BERLIN (JTA) — The dedication of a new mikvah at the Chabad center here was tinged with sadness as participants remembered two Chabad emissaries killed last week in the Mumbai terror attacks.

A memorial service for Rabbi Gavriel and Rivkah Holtzberg is planned here for Dec. 2,  Rabbi Yehudah Teichtal, the director of the Rohr Chabad Center, said on Sunday.

Shocked members of the Berlin Chabad community shared in somber tones what they had learned from the Jewish burial society in Mumbai: Rivkah was shot first; Gavriel apparently managed to drape a tallit over her before he was killed.

"This is what the chevra kadisha said, but nobody survived to know exactly what happened," said Rabbi Shmuel Segal, the program director at the Berlin Chabad Center who had attended the Brooklyn-based Central Yeshiva Tomchei Tmimim with Gavriel Holtzberg some nine years ago.

In the closely knit yet far-flung Chabad community, the Holtzbergs were known for their warmth and open-heartedness, he said. The couple had guided the Nariman House in Mumbai since 2003.

"When he told us he was going to India, I was not surprised," Segal said. "He was one to go the farthest that could be."

"It’s hard, it’s hard," Segal said. "We don’t understand it. It’s like there is pure goodness from one side — the schluchim from the rebbe," Chabad emissaries inspired by the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson. "And on the other side there is the maximum evil."

Speakers at Sunday’s ceremony insisted on celebrating despite the tragedy.

"How should we go on" after what happened? Teichtal asked the crowd in the synagogue at the Rohr center. "The answer is this mikvah. The terrorists can only threaten us physically, only materially. But our spirit will live on."

Rabbi Yossi Jacobson, the editor of the New York-based Yiddish newspaper the Algemeiner Journal, told the guests that the new mikvah for women "is a tribute to the holy souls of Gabi and Rivkah."

Guests at the event included U.S. Ambassador William Robert Timken, Israeli Ambassador Yoram Ben-Ze’ev and several German members of parliament.

The mikvah is located in the basement of the Chabad center, and,in fulfillment of the requirement for a fresh source of water, is partially fed by rain collected at the roof, said Leah Teichtal, the co-director of the center with her husband. The rabbi called his wife the "mastermind" of the project.

"She said, ‘Let’s make a beautiful, five-star mikvah,’ " he recalled.

Funding came from Annie and Pedro Donig, members of the Jewish community.

Sunday’s guests descended a brightly lit staircase to the mikvah rooms, including one with showers and bath, and another with the turqouise-tiled pool itself, its several steps leading downward into clear, warm water that is filtered constantly.

The rabbi said the steps are there because "some women are tall, and some are, well, not so tall." He added that the mikvah for men is not yet finished.

Mikvah users can get a manicure and pedicure, and classical music will be piped in, Leah Teichtal told JTA.

"We want to show the ladies that you are coming to a real spa," she said.

An upbeat atmosphere pervaded the upstairs. A film about the mikvah tradition ran on an endless loop, and guests sampled sushi, couscous and other delicacies from the center’s kosher caterer.

Outside, security was tight: Visitors had to pass between cement bollards and a gauntlet of police and private security guards. Chabad in Berlin has been the target of a few sensational anti-Semitic attacks.

Most recently, Teichtal and several yeshiva students in a van were harassed by men driving in another car. Two arrests have been made.

"I am not worried, but we do have to learn from this," Segal told JTA, referring to the Mumbai attacks. "We have to upgrade our security."

He said about a month ago, a visitor recounted his experience at the Chabad center in Mumbai.

Holtzberg is "like Abraham: His house is always open," the visitor said. "Even his private apartment is always open."
 

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