I spent this morning at a memorial service in Westwood for Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife, Rivkah, who ran the Chabad in Mumbai and were killed in the terrorist attacks there last week. It was amazing to see more than 1,000 people, including some of Los Angeles’ top officials paying tribute to two Jews they’d never met before.
I spoke with a Chabad rabbi who went to school with Gavriel back in New York and with a scholar who had celebrated Shabbat at the Mumbai Chabad house the Friday before the attacks, but most the people there were simply grabbed by the power of the Holtzbergs’ story, by the personal mission that caused the young couple to relocate after marrying in 2003 to a foreign land—to, as one speaker said, “the spread of good and the destruction of evil.”
Despite the circumstances, the mood at the memorial was upbeat. And I was surprised to hear so many times the exhortation that Jewish men put on tefillin to honor Gavriel’s legacy and that they create a kosher house for Rivkah. I’m still amazed with how Rabbi Holtzberg and his rebbetzin have come to serve as the public faces of this tragedy. From everything I’ve heard about the couple, I think they’d be a bit embarrassed by all the attention. But so many Jews, and non-Jews too, felt like the attacks were an attack on them personally; when one suffers, we all suffer.
“All of the Jewish people are connected. They are part of us,” Marilyn Greenberg, 71 and of no relation, told me at the service. “A young family, doing work for Klal Yisroel—and they were killed because they were Jewish. There wasn’t any other reason.”
I have yet to find a clear report that the Jewish center was specifically targeted. But a man who had visited told me it was located down an alley, well off the street, and wouldn’t be the kind of boarding house you would just stumble upon while looking for hostages. And it’s not hard to imagine religious extremists including a small community of Jews in such a diabolical plot. I hear that’s been happening for centuries.
I’ll be writing more about this for this week’s Jewish Journal. The latest detail to emerge is this:
Chabad Rabbi Levi Shem Tov said he tried to phone Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg at the Chabad House in Mumbai during the terrorist attack that ended his life and that of his wife and four others Jews in the building. A terrorist, who indentified himself as Imram, answered the phone, and Rabbi Shem Tov heard Rivka Holtzberg screaming in English, “Please help immediately.”
The terrorist originally ended the first phone conversation, saying that he spoke only the Urdu language. Rabbi Shem Tov found an Urdu speaker and called again. The terrorist said the rabbi was alive and well and would be freed if demands were met.
Rabbi Shem Tov related that he told the terrorist he would contact the Indian government to give them what they wanted, but when the rabbi asked to speak with Rabbi Holtzberg, the terrorist replied, “You have already asked for too much.”
After another two or three phone calls, “Imram” said the phone was dying and he hung up.