Many things must have crossed Rabbi Gabi and Rivky Holtzberg’s minds when they set out for Mumbai, India, in 2003. The city where they would plant their roots and establish a new Chabad center was far from New York and Israel, where their families lived. It was big and messy, and a culture unlike anything they knew. Their task, to build a warm Jewish home to share with everyone they encountered in India, was a heady one, but at least they had no reason to worry about security since India had always been a safe haven for Jews.
The Bene Israel Indian Jews have lived in peace in India for millennia. A few hundred years ago they were joined by the so-called Baghdadi Jews, victims of anti-Jewish actions in their native Muslim lands, who fled for the distance and safety of India. These new arrivals became active and influential members of Indian society, erecting monumental synagogues for themselves and public works for their new home. While their numbers dwindled in the 20th century as Jews emigrated out of India, it was not anti-Semitism that caused them to leave.
It was Mumbai’s overpopulation that became one of the Holtzbergs’ first obstacles. The city is India’s business capital, and Gabi and Rivky’s new Chabad center became a popular destination for Jewish businesspeople, as well as tourists, NGO employees, and volunteers—a welcoming presence in the midst of the unfamiliar. At first the couple worked out of a three-star hotel but quickly outgrew it and Gabi took the lead on finding a new place. Because of Mumbai’s crushing shortage of space, he found it almost impossible to find a suitable rental.
“He called me and said ‘Let’s buy something,’” recalls Rabbi Yosef Chaim Kantor, who has been the head Chabad emissary in Thailand since being sent to Bangkok in 1993 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, and who was instrumental in matching the Holtzbergs with Mumbai. “We were all shocked, but his approach was the Chassidic adage l’chatchila ariber, don’t climb under, jump over in the first place. That was his approach to everything.”
Not long after that conversation, Holtzberg asked Kantor to fly to Mumbai to look at a property he had in mind, a building in the Colaba district called Nariman House.
“I remember thinking ‘No terrorist can find this,’” says Kantor. “I don’t know why I thought about that. Terrorism meant something different back then, a car bomb. It was on this side alley. You couldn’t fall into the Chabad House, you had to go and find it.”
It was perfect.
Chicago-native Sarah Peaceman arrived in Mumbai in September of 2008. She came as a volunteer with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and joined her partner who came six weeks earlier. Their job was to work with the Bene Israel community, running programs and helping to foster in India the type of Jewish community in which they had grown up.
“Still, there was a difference between what our job entailed and how we practiced our Judaism on a personal level,” says Peaceman. She came from a Conservative background but found the Holtzbergs’ Chabad House familiar, inviting.
“They did a great job at exactly what they became known for later,” she says. On Shabbat “there could be hundreds of people at the meal, but Rabbi Gabi made sure each person had a chance to share something with the crowd, that each person mattered.”
Peaceman gravitated towards Rivky. She remembers her kindness, her accessibility.
“Aside for my partner, I probably saw Rivky more than anyone else during those three months,” she says. “We were getting to know each other, but I also got to watch her interact with other people. She tried to remember everyone’s names. She was really kind to everyone, guests, kitchen staff. We were friends and becoming really good friends.”
On Wednesday evening, Nov. 26, 2008, Sarah and her partner were settling into their apartment for the night after a long day of work when they got a call. It was a JDC higher-up making sure they were home. A massive terror attack was unfolding on the streets of Mumbai, people were being slaughtered in the streets, in hotels, at the central train station, and they wanted to make sure the young women were indoors and safe. The attack, they would soon learn, was being carried out by an Islamic terrorist group called Lashkar-e-Taiba.
An Indian Jewish friend came over, and the three spent the night checking news updates online. They knew early on that the Chabad House where they spent the preceding Friday night had been attacked and was under siege.
“We called over there on the phone and no one picked up,” she says. They hoped someone would. “I still remember it ringing and ringing and ringing.”
The next evening the JDC evacuated the pair to Israel. In the taxi to the airport, the normally chaotic streets of Mumbai were empty and silent.
Kantor was sleeping at home in Bangkok when he got a text from New York: “What’s happening, any news from Gabi?” He spent the next two days, like so many people around the world, glued to the news and reciting psalms. As Shabbat dawned in Thailand he held out hope that the Holtzbergs, whose son Moshe had been dramatically saved a day earlier, would somehow be spared.
“I saw a headline in a hotel as I walked to shul in the morning, but I didn’t let it register until after Shabbat,” he says. Gabi and Rivky Holtzberg and their guests had been murdered. “It shook my whole sense of what could and couldn’t happen.” In total, there had been 164 people killed in the course of the three-day attack.
The Holtzbergs had quietly suffered during their lifetime. They had lost their eldest son to the genetic disease Tay Sachs, and had a second son in an Israeli hospital ill with the same. But they kept going with their work, ever the happy warriors.
“This was a guy who before anything had happened was my hero,” Kantor explains. “That motzei Shabbat was catastrophic. I broke down.”
It wasn’t only him. His family had known Gabi well too, and his children struggled to process what had occurred. At the same time Kantor, who flew to Israel for the funeral, had to deal with immediate logistics in Mumbai. There was the building, and Chabad activities had to go on.
“We had someone in Mumbai the next Shabbat, and there was a Chabad presence in the city every Shabbat since,” he says. That work kept him from revisiting the memory of the actual events. “I haven’t really let myself think about it too much.”
Peaceman and her partner spent 10 days in Israel, witnessing a mass outpouring of grief and love, before returning to Mumbai. They both went to the continuing Chabad Friday night meals, hosted in a rented apartment and run by rotating shifts of yeshivah students. The boys were nice, Peaceman says, they worked hard, but it wasn’t Gabi and Rivky.
She never went back to the devastated Chabad House. “I couldn’t. I saw pictures and that was really rough. I was never ready to go back.”
Ten years later Peaceman says the Holtzbergs are still on her mind. She recalls their patience, their kindness. “I think of them and ask: What am I contributing to this world? What are my values?” she says. “I learned you can’t take anything for granted.”
Looking back a decade on, Kantor says much has changed. Security is a top priority for him now and the centers he oversees. There is a wider recognition in the Jewish world of the role played by Chabad emissaries around the globe, and the risks they take in the course of their work.
For Kantor, it’s a feeling not unlike the Rebbe’s passing in 1994, the 25th anniversary of which will be marked this summer. A newly minted emissary at the time, Kantor had traveled to New York for the funeral. On the plane back home to Bangkok he felt broken, before turning his focus to the task at hand.
“Now you gotta do more,” he told himself then. Today, “that message stays the same.”