This week marks the yahrzeit of Rabbi Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg, Chabad representatives to Mumbai who were murdered during the terrorist attacks in December 2008.
This past September, Rabbi Chanoch and Leah Gechtman settled Mumbai to resume the work of Gabi and Rivky. The following is an updated interview based on their recent conversation with lubavitch.com. The interview was conducted in Hebrew.
Editor: You’ve been living in Mumbai now for three months. Any surprises?
Chanoch: After the terror attacks, we weren’t sure there was a future to this place. To our great surprise, many people who were reluctant to come back during those first months after the tragedy are traveling here again, and new people who’ve never been here are coming as well. The Chabad House is very active, with visitors here at all hours. It really is an integral part of Mumbai’s Jewish business community.
Editor: You are living in a temporary rental that also serves as your Chabad center.
Chanoch: Yes, and it is already too small. We have on average some 30 people every night for dinner, and about 40-50 for Shabbat. That’s only by word-of-mouth, as we do not publicize our programs and services.
Editor: Who does all the cooking?
Leah: We trained a staff of local people. It wasn’t easy teaching an Indian crew how to work in our kitchen. It took a long time and a lot of hard work to get it right, but we finally got a routine going, and that’s making a huge difference. I supervise them.
Editor: What were your greatest concerns before coming here?
Chanoch: Security. And I was very concerned about how my wife would perceive Mumbai—the poverty on the streets, the odors, the heat can be shocking. But in fact we’ve been pleasantly surprised because we are staying in a location that is quite different from Colaba where Nariman House is—much cleaner and more residential.
Editor: You aren’t going to be moving into Nariman House.
Chanoch: No. Security experts from Israel and India spent a lot of time studying the situation and found that the place was no longer suitable for Mumbai’s main Chabad center. But it will reopen as a visitor center as per ongoing discussions with security experts.
Nariman House will be testimony to the terrible destruction, and to Chabad’s resolve to stay here and serve Jewish life despite the attempts to destroy it. It will be a memorial to the life that Gabi and Rivki lived there.
Editor: Do you see yourselves as replacing Gabi and Rivki?
Chanoch: We see ourselves as Shluchim of the Rebbe. But we obviously want to continue the work that Gabi and Rivki did in Mumbai. Gabi was unusual in the way he drew people who were just hanging out in the Chabad House, into the study of Torah—he managed to do that at every opportunity—pulling out a Tanya while sharing a cup of coffee with a visitor, a businessman, a traveler, and before you knew it, people came around the table and Gabi got everyone to learn a little. And he did it all with such gentleness.
Editor: Are you satisfied with the security arrangements you now have?
Chanoch: They are good. We have Israeli security. It’s very costly. Thankfully, there are generous individuals who want to help fund the Chabad Center’s security, because without it we could not be here.
Editor: You were both leading busy lives in Israel, working as Shluchim, when you were approached by members of Lubavitch Headquarters concerning Mumbai.
Chanoch : Yes, we weren’t looking for another position. My wife and I were working as Shluchim in Gadera, where my in-laws lead a busy Chabad center with 200 people on a regular Shabbat. So when we were approached about Mumbai, several months after the attack, we dismissed the idea.
Editor: Why were you asked to take the assignment?
Chanoch: As a rabbinical student, I spent time in Mumbai helping the Holtzbergs. Gabi was a dear friend, and I knew Mumbai and the community. But after five months there, I knew I’d never want to live there. It’s not an easy place.
Editor: What made you change your mind?
Chanoch: We were approached numerous times about it, and at some point, I began to think that maybe it deserves at least some thought. But until my wife would have a chance to visit Mumbai and get to know the place, it really wasn’t relevant.
Leah Gechtman: At first I wouldn’t hear of it. But then it occurred to me that if the Rebbe would ask us to take the assignment, we would be honored. That changed my way of looking at it, and I began to consider it.
Editor: What areas are you now focusing on?
Chanoch: Now that we already have a lot of our initial programs in place, we are hoping to build a support center for the immediate needs—food, medicine, financial assistance—of the local Jewish community. We plan to develop educational courses and social activities that will help people here build a higher quality of life and improve their day-to-day existence.
Editor: When we last spoke, you weren’t sure what life in Mumbai would be like for you as a mother of a young baby, and as a Shlucha. How do you feel about it now?
Leah: That I can build a life here. The living conditions are much more difficult than what we were used to. In Israel we’d spend a lot of time outdoors. In Mumbai, we stay indoors a lot because of the heat and the polluted air. Getting around—transportation, is also complicated. But we’ve found many nice places and parks in pleasant, safe areas, so we do get out and enjoy.
More importantly, we found a community of people who are grateful to have us here, people who need our support. There’s a great sense of purpose in the busy pace of our lives here and the central role that Chabad plays in the lives of so many people here.