Tel Aviv — Hours after news filtered out of Mumbai that Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg were dead, 8,000 miles away at Chabad of Atlanta, Georgia, a congregant was called to the Torah to name his one-day-old daughter. It was obvious to him what she should be called — Rivka.
Neither the father, Yaakov Citrin, nor his wife, Malkie, had ever met the Holtzbergs, Chabad’s chief emissaries in India. But in Chabad, there is a sense of community that goes beyond personal acquaintance.
Chabad-Lubavitch, which is centered in Brooklyn, has turned itself into a worldwide movement by sending out emissaries like the Holtzbergs to work with secular and unaffiliated Jews around the world, particularly in places where the communal infrastructure is weak or non-existent. The sense of mission binds movement members together from the movement’s heartlands in America, Israel and the United Kingdom, to outposts in Thailand.
“There’s a saying that Hasidim are like one family — well for us it’s not just a slogan, it’s a reality,” Yossi Lew, rabbi of Chabad of Atlanta, Ga., told the Forward, adding that the baby naming in his synagogue “shows how strongly Chabad has been hit.”
In Tel Aviv on November 30, Chabad activist Schneer Schneerson was trying to cope with the tragedy in his own way. He was going between diners at a cafe with a pair of tefillin in one hand and a stroller holding his baby son in another. As per Chabad practice, he was urging secular Jews to put on the tefillin and say a prayer. This is part of his daily routine, but he declared himself more determined than ever.
“I knew him [Gavriel Holtzberg] — we are the same age. He was a very special man,” he said, adding that the only way he can understand what happened is as a “test” with the message being that “we should do more good, get people to do more mitzvoth.”
The other victims at the Nariman House in Mumbai were not members of Chabad, but they underscored the degree to which Chabad has become an address for Judaism in far-flung places. Two were in Mumbai supervising kosher operations in a mushroom factory. Leibish Teitelbaum, 38, grew up in America — his father is Nuchem Efraim Teitelbaum, known as the Volover Rov of Boro Park — and was living in Jerusalem. His friend Bentzion Chroman, 26, who had visited to help him out, lived in the Israeli coastal town of Bat Yam and had Israeli and American citizenship.
Another victim, Mexican Norma Schwartzblatt-Rabinowitz, was due to make aliyah on December 1 to join her two children who already live in Israel. The sixth victim was 62-year-old Yocheved Orpaz, a grandmother who had travelled from her home in Givatayim near Tel Aviv to visit family members who were touring India.
The center in Mumbai – and Chabad’s larger operations in the region — is largely geared to a specific group, namely the many secular Israelis who travel east after their compulsory military service. Chabad has seen it as its mission to provide a Jewish point of contact for these drifting Israelis. Part of this project, however, not ideal from a security standpoint, is to provide a high-profile, well-labeled center to attract passing tourists.
The Holtzbergs were seen as hardy archetypes of the Chabad ideal. As newlyweds in 2003, the Holtzbergs went to Mumbai to establish the Chabad House. They developed it as a facility where Jewish locals, backpackers, and visiting businessmen could find a friendly atmosphere, accommodation, kosher food and religious education.
Gavriel Holtzberg, 29, was born in Israel and moved with his parents to Crown Heights, Brooklyn, when he was 9. Rivka Holtzberg, 28, studied at a seminary in America but was originally from Afula in Israel’s Jezreel Valley, where her father Shimon Rosenberg is a Chabad emissary.
Gabriel Holtzberg traveled regularly from Mumbai to another of the sect’s outposts, Bangkok, to slaughter animals according to Jewish law. “He was a good friend, someone from our army. We are one community and everyone feels it,” Bangkok emissary David Haddad told the Forward. “It’s one community and we all feel the same. Because I’m his friend, it’s more difficult, but especially among the shluchim [emissaries], everyone feels it.”
This is not the first time tragedy has struck the Holtzberg family. The couple was still dealing with the loss of a son, Menachem Mendel, who died early this year from a degenerative disorder, and their oldest son is hospitalized in Israel with a serious illness.
Their youngest son, Moshe, was to celebrate his second birthday on November 29, but instead he found himself an orphan in the care of relatives after being carried to safety by his nanny.
The Indian Express, one of the few media outlets given access to the building in the hours after the siege ended, gave a harrowing account. “On entering the first floor, the stench of decomposed bodies on the third floor became unbearable,” the paper reported.
On the first floor, in the dining room, “the red chairs with dining tables lie scattered. There is a plate on one table, with food left untouched. Several torn prayer books are lying on the floor. Across the room, another painting of Jewish leaders hangs on the wall.”
In India, news trickled into the apartment where family of the Holtzbergs were staying throughout Shabbat. It was not until after nightfall on Saturday that a representative of the Israeli consulate arrived to give official notification.
Chabad’s leaders wept openly at a New York press conference where the deaths of the Holtzbergs were confirmed on November 28. They were “two of our finest” and “served their community with love and devotion,” said top-ranking Chabad rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, chair of the movement’s educational and social service arms.
Also on November 30, in London, British Chabad emissaries met at a special farbringen — a traditional Hasidic gathering — to share their grief. “We never considered ourselves targets but the reality is that we are,” Cambridge emissary Reuven Leigh, who organized the farbringen, told the Forward.
Despite the tragedy, Chabad is promising to continue its work. “Nothing deters us,” said Krinsky at the November 28 press conference.
Leigh said: “The nature of being a shaliach [emissary] is that one has such trust that given we are engaged in important work, everything will be okay. And the funny thing is that that’s not really changed.”
Some wonder if travelers will be so unscathed. “When I was traveling, Chabad felt like a place you could let your guard down and I may not feel quite as comfortable there today,” said David Carly, a Haifa resident who visited Thailand in 2004.
However, those who have studied the behavior of Jewish travelers believe that Chabad will not see a downturn in visitors — and may actually see a boost.
“If it was a one-time thing, it will not affect most Israelis who would visit Chabad,” said Darya Maoz, an anthropologist at the Centre For Academic Studies in Or Yehuda, whose doctorate thesis was on Israeli backpackers in India, and post-doctoral research was on Chabad houses for backpackers.
Sapir College sociologist Chaim Noy, editor of “Israeli Backpackers: From Tourism to a Rite of Passage,” told the Forward that the resilience of Israeli tourists is second only to that of religious pilgrims. “In research we distinguish between different types of tourists, and while they are not pilgrims, it would take almost as much to put them off.”
If anything, Noy said, the attack “has put Chabad at the center of what Israeliness is all about,” brought the movement much media exposure, and given it widespread sympathy — which he believes could result in an increase in visitors.
One change that may take place as a result of the attack, predicted Maoz, is that “cracks may emerge” in the image that India enjoys among Israelis, which could slowly lead to a downturn in India-bound tourism. “The image of India as a relaxed and peaceful place in contrast to Israel — sometimes in defiance of realities — has been the crucial factor in Israelis choosing to go there,” she said. “Maybe reality will now enter.”