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Reflections: Return to Mumbai

By , Mumbai, India

( What had changed since last August, when I had first visited Mumbai? The Indian Army squad in a sandbagged position in front of the Knesset Eliyahu Synagogue, where Gabi Holtzberg had served as rabbi. The Shabbat meals being held in an “undisclosed location,” necessitating some sleuthing before I came, to get approved. And of course, after long hours of the Shabbat meal, singing, talking and sharing, and after a long walk through Mumbai’s nighttime street and finally up the alleyway, familiar from last time, the battered Chabad House of Mumbai, the place the Indian TV and the locals called Nariman House.

I had breezed in there in August, breathless, with barely half an hour left before Shabbat. My driver, though a native and long experienced in the twisting maze of Mumbai’s roads had had to stop four different times in the neighborhood to find where Chabad was. It was and is not a place you just stumble upon.

I was welcomed warmly but quickly by Rabbi Holtzberg and shown to a clean, crisp room, as nice as one in a decent hotel. During the course of that Friday night, I had a glimpse into Reb Gabi’s remarkable personality and that of his wife, Rivka.

That evening, Chabad had been filled by an extended family from France, about forty strong, all off on an August vacation in India. And where else to spend Shabbat in Mumbai but at Chabad? They said the Friday night prayers right there in Chabad, and waited expectantly for dinner.

But Rabbi Holtzberg had his regular obligation in the Knesset Eliyahu Synagogue and it took some time to get back, so the crowd was a little restive and not in the best mood when Reb Gabi got back to get the meal under way. He stood up and started to speak a little, apologizing for his inability to speak French. He suggested we get in the mood by singing a song, and suggested a song that the Chasidim had adopted a long time ago as one of their own. As he sang the first bars of what was formerly known as La Marseilles there was a happy roar of recognition and everyone joined in with gusto. Within thirty seconds, Reb Gabi had won everyone’s heart—and the evening had just begun. Behind it all, Rivki was constantly attentive, whether to see that all were properly served a delicious and bountiful meal, or to be engaged in animated talk, now serious, now smiling, with any number of people.

Now two young recently ordained Chabad rabbis, and not yet married, have flown out to Mumbai to keep the Holtzbergs’ work alive and to carry it on further. A New York-born Israeli businessman, stationed in Mumbai for two years, said it simply: “They are mature beyond their years.”

Rabbis Mendel Shputz and Mendel Kessler have the respect and affection of the small congregation of native Mumbaikurs and they handle the many visitors with the good humor, affection and sense of loving purposefulness that show the best of what Chabad offers to the world. They not only have to fill large shoes, but they must also comfort a community shocked by the senseless loss of such good people, greet foreign dignitaries, such as the Canadian Immigration Minister who toured the destruction of Chabad House with them and spoke at the synagogue, as well as deal with the continuing stream of tourists and Israelis fresh out of the army looking for something warm and Jewish, a home far away from home. The two Mendels do this all with aplomb.
Friday night, Rabbi Shputz began by following a tradition that Reb Gabi had instituted—each person around the table would introduce himself and then say a Torah thought, a story or a song. So it went late into the night.

Some South Africans and an American, here to study from an Indian sage, yet eager to keep in touch with their Judaism, shared an exercise of clapping and laughing that lifted everyone’s spirits. A native-born family shared their sadness over the loss, their confidence that G-d is giving the Holtzbergs a heavenly reward, and their dedication to help carry forward their good work. Another Israeli who has long been a resident here spoke passionately about our strong obligation to support the Holtzberg’s orphaned son Moshe. During the course of the evening, he and others discussed practical ways to raise funds see to it that not only would he have the necessities of life, but the things that a loving parent would like to give their child that makes life special and exciting—a new bike when he is old enough, a computer, a trip to the U.S . . .

The next day, at the morning services at the Knesset Eliyahu, I watched three birds who were perched in the rich gingerbread ornamentation of the synagogue high above us. They had been there last night, too. The many windows of the synagogue are open and the ceiling is lofty and three birds had come in and walked about, or sat and perched and seemed to look down on the prayers attentively. I had a thought then on Friday night which I did not share.

But on Saturday morning, at a lull in the services, a French-born resident, who was close to the Holtzbergs, pointed up to the birds and whispered to me, “Do you see? There are just three of them: Gabi, Rivki and Moshe.” I said nothing at first. After some minutes, I came back to him and said: “Last night, I had seen those birds, and I had thought the same thing.”


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