December 4, 2008
The Rebbe’s army soldiers on
Rabbi Gavriel and Rivkah Holtzberg, the Chabad emissaries brutally murdered last week in Mumbai, ran the Jewish center they established in that Indian city on their own. But the young Israeli American couple were part of a worldwide network of Chabad-Lubavitch shluchim -- more than 7,000 men and women who devote their lives to doing Jewish outreach in more than 73 countries.
The outreach effort has become the hallmark of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, set in motion 55 years ago by their late rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. In the 15 years since his death, "going on shlichus," or becoming Chabad emissaries, has been a point of pride with young Lubavitchers -- the best and the brightest, they say, become the rebbe's emissaries.
Chabad has become so ubiquitous that Jewish travelers around the world, no matter how far they stray, have come to expect a Shabbat meal, a holiday celebration and a warm welcome from one of these Chasidic couples, no questions asked. All that's required is a knock on the door.
An online tribute to the Holtzbergs posted recently at www.chabad.org is filled with postings from American, British and Israeli travelers who passed through the Mumbai Chabad center the couple established in 2003.
People recall 29-year-old Gabi's broad smile and 28-year-old Rivkah's efforts to make every guest feel at home. Some write of playing with the couple's 2-year-old son, Moshe, and wondering who will raise him now. One traveler called the Holtzbergs "a beacon of Judaism" in a world that often made him feel alone and alien.
Over the past decade, both during and after my research for "The Rebbe's Army," my 2003 book about Lubavitch shluchim, I have heard similar stories from countless American Jews. They talk of spending Shabbat with Chabad in Venice, Hong Kong, Anchorage, Bangkok. They marvel at the fortitude and commitment of these young couples who leave comfortable lives in New York, London or Jerusalem to take up residence in Russia, Brazil, Zambia and, yes, India -- countries where they live to serve their fellow Jews, where they raise their children in a language and culture not their own.
Often I meet these Jews at fundraisers for other Jewish organizations. As we munch on hors d'oeuvres and sip wine in fancy banquet halls from Los Angeles to Miami, those who relate these stories don't seem to realize that the Chabad centers they have come to expect around the world don't pop up by themselves, and certainly they don't continue to function without the tireless work and endless fundraising by the emissaries who run them.
At the Passover seder I spent in Bangkok in April 2001, the Chabad center on Khao San Road had been completed just hours before the dinner began; the rafters were still unpainted. Nearly 300 tickets at $15 a pop had been presold to Israeli backpackers who filled the nearby guesthouses.
Some 700 young travelers tromped happily up the stairs to the seder, more than half brushing past the Lubavitch yeshiva students who were quietly collecting tickets and smiling at every arrival, whether they had paid or not.
A free dinner! Of course, it's Chabad. It's always free. It's always there.
During my visit with the Chabad emissaries in Salt Lake City, I listened as Sharonne Zippel spoke of the sadness she felt as she and her husband prepared to send their 11-year-old son off to Montreal for yeshiva, in accordance with Lubavitch custom. When the couple, as young marrieds, decided to spend their lives as shluchim, Sharonne told me, they hadn't realized it meant dragging their future children into the same lifelong commitment.
Did Rivkah and Gavriel Holtzberg think about that when they decided to move to India? As her three children were born -- one died young, a second was in Israel with Rivkah's parents last week -- did Rivkah look into their tiny, perfect faces and wonder whether they might have been happier growing up in Brooklyn or Israel? When the gunmen burst into the Mumbai Jewish center on Nov. 26, did Rivkah or Gabi waver in their resolve to see it through to the end?
The weekend before the attack, 3,000 Chabad emissaries gathered in New York for their annual convention. They danced, they networked, they took their famous roll call during the closing-night banquet, standing up country by country to celebrate the movement's continued growth.
The number of Chabad institutions has doubled in the past decade from 745 to 1,326. According to a 2001 survey by the American Jewish Committee, one-tenth of the synagogues in the United States are Chabad congregations. The movement's Web site receives 75,000 unique visitors every day.
The growth is qualitative, too. More sophisticated adult educational programs have been created and emissaries have become involved in a wider range of activities, from prisoner rehabilitation to new media development.
New emissary couples are taking up postings around the world in ever more remote locations. Chabad centers were established last year in South Korea, Serbia and northern Cyprus. Four new Lubavitch couples every week, on average, set out to somewhere around the globe, intent on spreading their rebbe's message to do good, study hard and love one's fellows.
The word from Lubavitch global headquarters in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn is that the Mumbai tragedy will not slow down the movement, nor deter new emissaries from taking up their postings.
Next week, Rabbi David Slavin, 27, and his wife, Chani, 26, head to Yassi, Romania, a city with 7,000 Jewish families on the Ukrainian border.
Speaking by phone from their current home in Kiryat Malachi in Israel, David said the news from Mumbai has not affected their plans.
"We are not afraid at all," he said. "We can't understand why this happened to the Holtzbergs; it's very hard, of course. But we are sure this is the right path for us."
Like other emissaries, the Slavins will bring their children with them: 2-year-old Dovi and 2-month-old Chaya Mushka.
David, whose American-born parents were sent as Chabad emissaries to Israel by Schneerson, noted that Dovi and Chaya Mushka will be third-generation shluchim. That's quite a responsibility to lay on the shoulders of two toddlers. But it's the life they have chosen.