It was 2007. I was studying at the Chabad yeshivah in Baltimore when a very exciting opportunity came my way. I would spend my summer with Chabad’s “Roving Rabbis” program. (Since the 1940s, Chabad has been sending rabbinical students to remote areas with small or non-existent Jewish communities in order to seek out every individual Jew to visit, teach and inspire a deeper Jewish experience.)
My destination: India. My partner and I were immediately put in touch with Rabbi Gabi Holtzberg, director of Chabad of Mumbai, to discuss our job and what was expected from us. I was somewhat familiar with Holtzberg, as he grew up in my native Crown Heights in Brooklyn, N.Y., and was also my older brother’s friend. The conversations, both by phone and email, that I had with Rabbi Gabi, as well as the Jewish outreach work I had the opportunity to do in India, impacted me in a way that would last a lifetime.
We arrived at the Chabad House in Mumbai in the summer of 2007, and were given very general directions and tips for our goal of finding and reaching Jews in Bangalore and Auroville, the two southern Indian cities in which we were to spend most of our time. With G-d’s help, our summer was successful, meeting dozens of Jewish families and cultivating what was to become the permanent Chabad Center in Bangalore, which opened after the Holtzbergs’ brutal murder.
In a sense, it was Rabbi Gabi’s understated demeanor which spoke loudest and which left the biggest impact on me. There was no controlling, imposing ego or hang-ups that things be done his way. It was about the mission and getting it done. He would embrace a Jewish traveler he was meeting for the first time with sincere interest. “How can I be there for you in your time of need? What can I do to help facilitate your Jewish needs?”
My experience over the summer and the example shown by Rabbi Gabi certainly played a role in shaping my decision to commit to the holy work of serving the Jewish community. Together with my wife, we ultimately found our corner of the world to be of service to the Jewish community, establishing Chabad of Olney in 2012.
Time and again during my short “shlichut” in India, I witnessed something extraordinary. Naturally, whether due to personality and ideological differences or due to differing levels of Jewish observance, we all put up walls between each other. In the distance of India I was able to see these artificial walls melt away in seconds. When you meet someone who is deeply committed to the Jewish people and lives by that mission, people respond in kind.
Rabbi Gabi did not have it easy. He had more than his share of personal challenges, having lost one child to Tay-Sachs and spending most of the summer we were there flying back and forth to Israel, tending to his second child diagnosed with the same illness, to which he ultimately succumbed. Who knows? Perhaps it was Rabbi Gabi’s deep commitment and purpose-oriented life that gave him the ability to forge ahead with a sense of equanimity in spite of his pain.
At the Shabbat service following the recent Pittsburgh massacre, we read aloud in our shul the Av Harachamim memorial prayer. My mind drifted to my time in Mumbai and the extraordinary personalities of Rabbi Gabi and Rivky Holtzberg “May the All-Merciful Father. … remember … the communities who gave their lives for the sanctification of G-d name. … They were beloved and pleasant in their lives, and [even] in their death were not parted. … stronger than lions to carry out the will of their maker.”
During the Hebrew month of Cheshvan which we recently concluded, the Jewish people marked 80 years since Kristallnacht, 10 years since the Mumbai massacre, four years since the Har Nof massacre, and this year, the Pittsburgh massacre. Jews have shown a tremendous character. We respond to tragedy with strength. We face evil and in response choose to build, to grow, to rededicate ourselves to the work at hand.
As we mark 10 years from the terrorist attack on the Chabad House in Mumbai, we ought to recommit ourselves to the example these special souls have shown. We can’t get hung up on petty things; the task is too important for our egos to get in the way. Reach out to your fellow with love, and they will respond in kind. n
Rabbi Bentzy Stolik directs Chabad of Olney.