‘This Was Their Life’


Half asleep from his late-night travels to Mumbai, Chaim Zaklos trailed groggily behind an energetic Gavriel Holtzberg and suddenly found himself aboard a wooden motorboat, on an early spring morning of 2006. Filled with 150 ferry passengers and zero life jackets, the vessel rumbled away from the Gateway of India and chugged through a predawn Mumbai Harbor for about an hour, as the sun rose over their destination — the town of Alibag.

Zaklos disembarked the boat, following his friend into the local Alibag slaughterhouse, where they would begin their day’s work — all routine labor for Rabbi Holtzberg. For nearly four hours, he watched as the rabbi slaughtered about 500 chickens, adhering to strict kosher protocol. After salting the animals to drain excess blood, they packed the dead chickens in ice and sealed them in boxes, with the help of the Nepalese workers who loved him. The next day, the boxes would arrive by a four-hour truck delivery to Holtzberg’s house in Mumbai, where he would disperse the shipments to Jewish homes in Bangalore, Calcutta, New Dehli and elsewhere in the Far East.

In the days following the tragic murders of Rabbi Gavriel and Rivkah Holtzberg at the hands of terrorists, old and new friends —religious or secular alike— told stories of a couple that continually sacrificed themselves for the sake of their community and would stop at nothing to help local or visiting Jews feel at home in India.

“This was their lives — you could see that they were so dedicated to their mission, you could see it in everything that they did,” said Elisheva Levine, a medical student who visited with them this summer. “It was amazing that Jewish people could come from anywhere and be in this huge city with a massive population and know that they would be taken care of by Chabad.”

Levine, with her friends Hillary Lewin and Heather Glubo, spent five weeks in Mumbai through a program co-sponsored by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology at Yeshiva University. But what the three young women and many of their other classmates will remember most about that summer is the time they spent getting to know the Holtzbergs, who hosted the Jewish students each Shabbat at their Chabad house.

“The place was like a subway station,” said Lewin, who is a second-year Ph.D. candidate at the Ferkauf School. She noted that over 40 Orthodox businessmen swarmed in and out of the Chabad house each day, and they hosted anyone and everyone — including recently released Israeli prisoners — at their Shabbat tables each week.

The female graduate students became particularly close with Rivkah because they were one of the few groups of women who spent time with the Holtzbergs on a consistent basis. She immediately became involved in Lewin’s personal relationships and took a sincere interest in her life.

“It was amazing how we had such a strong connection in such a short period of time,” Lewin said. “It’s truly a reflection of her character, her ability to connect with all kinds of people and to care for my future as if I was her daughter.”

But behind all their love and hospitality was a sad history.

Before getting married, Israeli-born Brooklynite Gavriel worked with the emissaries then based in Thailand, an experience that inspired him to eventually take on his own mission in the Far East. He married Rivkah, an Israeli, in 2002, and they spent most of their first year together in Brooklyn, until they shipped out to Mumbai as emissaries in 2003. After trying to conceive a child for years, Rivkah eventually gave birth to a baby that suffered from Tay-Sachs, a genetic disease common among Ashkenazic Jews.

That child died. A second child, also born with Tay-Sachs, is now hospitalized in Israel.

The Holtzberg’s third child, Moishe, whose second birthday was on Saturday, was rescued from the Mumbai attack by his nanny, Sandra Samuel, and is now in Israel. At the couple’s funeral Tuesday in Kfar Chabad, Rivkah’s father, Rabbi Shimon Rosenberg, announced that his daughter had been five months pregnant with their fourth child.

Now an orphan cared for by his grandparents, Moishe became “the child of all of Israel,” said Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, who oversees the Chabad emissaries, in a eulogy for the Holtzbergs. The Chabad house in Mumbai will be named for the couple, memorializing what they stood for and pressing on with Jewish outreach in the city.

It was an outreach Lewin, the Yeshiva University graduate student, felt deeply. During her five weeks in Mumbai last summer she felt as if she had become part of the Holtzberg family. She particularly enjoyed when Moishe and his father would sing Moishe’s favorite songs together.

“One time Gabi was giving a d’var Torah, and Moishe was singing in the background for 15 minutes,” Lewin said, remembering how irresistible little Moishe was, dressed in his bowtie, black pants and special “Shabbos shoes” each week. “He was so, so attached to [his parents]. The second Rivky would walk out of the room, he would scream, ‘Ima, Ima, Ima.’ He loved Sandra, but his Ima was everything.”

Usually, the students stayed in the air-conditioned guest rooms, but one weekend a big diamond show came to town and the rooms were filled with Orthodox businessmen. Yet Rivkah still insisted that the girls come stay with them — in their personal quarters.

“They never asked for a dime from us,” Lewin said, noting that the guest rooms typically cost businessmen $100 each night.

During their weekend spent in the Holtzbergs’ private quarters, Lewin and her friends were struck by the plainness of the small apartment compared to the guest rooms, library and beit midrash. Moishe’s room was the only decorated space, and the blue handpainted walls were adorned with fish, letters of the alphabet and pictures of the Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, according to Lewin.

“I just got a glimpse into their bedroom, and that’s where I saw the peeling paint,” she said. “It was just like a crash pad,” where they spent their very few moments of rest.

“Hospitality was the forefront of their minds, something that they held to a great esteem,” added Heather Glubo, also a second-year Ph.D. candidate at Ferkauf. “What was important was how much they put their effort and money and pride into helping other people.”

To many visitors, one of the most remarkable traits shared by Rivkah and Gavriel was their love for each other.

“They were each other’s first date,” Glubo said, remembering how Rivkah said she felt as if she knew Gavriel before she even met him. “They were each other’s world. They lived in India for five years with no consistent friends…They were each other’s everything.”

The couple rarely disagreed, Glubo added, and even when they did they openly respected the other person’s opinions.

“They were basically a team,” Rabbi Zaklos agreed, remembering how Rivkah cooked the food that Gavriel slaughtered during his Passover experience with them, when they hosted 75 people. Meanwhile, Rivkah hosted matzah baking parties for Jewish children, and Gavriel handed out specially prepared shmurah matzot to local families.

“Rivky would make her own bread. He would shecht (slaughter) hundreds of chickens a day,” said Amir Perlson, who works for a New York consulting firm that has an office in Mumbai. Perlson remembers how the couple would pack pre-made lunches for him when he had to travel to faraway cities that might not have kosher food.

“He would invite us to dinner every single night,” Perlson continued. “No matter how many times you would come, he would always continue to call the next day.”

Amy Caron-Shif, 33, chuckled over her first impression of Gavriel, when she met the family four weeks ago during a trip with her husband. “There were a few cages of chickens right on the sidewalk [in the marketplace]. There was Gabi, a chasid among these Indians wearing billy boots. It was amazing to see how he was doing the shechita with these Indians.”

And food preparation was no exception to their full-bodied commitment to keeping Judaism alive in the local community.

“They made a public elephant menorah parade,” Zaklos said.

The Holtzbergs also took care of Israelis imprisoned in local jails typically for drug crimes, and Gavriel would do his best to get them out as quickly as possible, according to Perlson. “He would try to do everything to visit them, to make sure they could put tefillin on, to make sure they had kosher food.”

Perlson once asked Gavriel how long he intended to stay in India. “He said he’s going to be there until the Moshiach comes. I’m just saying that that’s my prayer, that hopefully this means something good can come out of such a tragedy.”