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Remembering Mumbai: A Traveler’s Reflections On the First Yahrzeit

By , Mumbai, India

( On November 26, 2008 at 9:45PM, two terrorists stormed the Chabad House in Mumbai, India. When I heard a CNN news report that members of Nariman House were being held hostage, I could barely breathe. I keeled over needing to cry, but my tears were stuck. Over the next few days I sat glued to the news, wrought with anxiety. I could not sleep at night.

I returned to Mumbai this summer, but for the first three weeks of my stay, I avoided the Chabad House. On Tisha B’Av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, I made my way over there.

I walked gingerly through the house with my friend. It was a walk through hell. Every inch, every single corner of Nariman House had been defiled, except for baby Moishe’s room. The single bullet aimed at his bedroom window did not penetrate the glass, and his walls looked as they had when I’d last seen them, with Rivky’s hand-painted aleph bet lining the perimeter of the room. Rivky was tracking Moshie’s growth in colored marker on the doorframe.

I entered Gabi and Rivky’s bedroom. Two pigeons perched on broken windowpanes cooed cheerfully at one another. Gabi’s and Rivky’s shoes rested neatly on a shoe rack. I thought of images I’d seen when I visited concentration camps in Poland.

I walked through the house in a fog trying to put the details together. Where did everyone die? Did they suffer? What were their last thoughts? Where was Moishe the whole time, and how did he survive? How did the terrorists find out about Chabad? Why did it take so many hours to organize rescue efforts? My questions are endless, the answers, short in coming.

We climbed to the 5th floor and then to the rooftop deck, where commandos had landed and from where they’d stormed the house in a futile attempt to rescue hostages.  Amid the rubble from the destruction of this holy place where innocent lives had been cut short, we read Megillat Eicha, the Book of Lamentations. For the first time, my tears on Tisha B’Av were all too real and personal.


 In the summer of 2008, I’d traveled to Mumbai to participate in a Global Health seminar and to gather data from local Indians for my psychology thesis.  With limited resources to accommodate my religious observance and kosher diet, I was blessed with the good fortune of meeting Gabi and Rivky Holtzberg. At first, they looked like a typical Lubavitch couple, the kind you might run into on the streets of Crown Heights. But the Holtzbergs, I soon learned, were anything but typical.

I was one of thousands of transient Jews to be showered with the Holtzbergs’ hospitality. Admittedly, I was initially dubious of their warmth, suspecting that they might be harboring plans for me to become Lubavitch by the end of my trip. But I was wrong. None of the thousands of Jewish businessmen, backpackers, honeymooners and soul searchers who passed through Chabad of Mumbai were ever pushed into adopting the Holtzberg’s religious lifestyle. Like me, they were all the fortunate recipients of a unique friendship with two extraordinary people, who offered Jewish comfort food, cozy beds and life lessons stemming from Jewish philosophy and law. The purpose of my trip may have been academic, but my encounter with Gabi and Rivky was certainly the highlight.

Just after Tisha B’Av of 2008, we said our goodbyes. I was excited to embark on a two-week adventure around the mysterious landscape of India, but saddened to be leaving the perpetually cheerful company of Gabi and Rivky. During our travels, Rivky would call every few days just to make sure that we were safe. Her concern showed me that she was a real friend, and that our relationship was not limited to her providing “Jewish travelers’ needs.”

Upon returning to New York, I tried to hold onto my Mumbai experiences via patchy email and phone correspondence with the Holtzbergs. The emails couldn’t transport me back to the Shabbat table at Nariman House, but I knew I wanted to keep these wonderful people in my life. On November 19th, Rivky wrote on my facebook wall about coordinating a phone date.  Unfortunately, I was unable to buy a phone card in time. We never spoke again.

Then, in the summer of 2009, Yeshiva University gave me the opportunity to return to Mumbai for the Global Health course and to continue gathering data for my thesis. I was hesitant, but something compelled me to return.  Even the flight to India was emotionally taxing. I couldn’t help but feel that revisiting Nariman House would only serve to brutally erase my idyllic memories.

I longed to return to the environment I’d left behind: a sisterly welcome from Rivky, with little Moshie peeking from around her hip. Gabi would be inside, I imagined, just getting off a phone call, and he’d say, “I can’t believe how fast time has gone since we last saw each other.” Before long he’d excitedly share his renovation plans for the Chabad House as Moshie played with his trucks and Rivky prepared some tea.

I spent this summer in Mumbai adjusting to the fact that what I had seen last year was the “Old Chabad,” and that there was now a “New Chabad“ in place. Along with my fellow travelers, I was fortunate to greet the new Chabad shluchim upon their arrival. But my first Shabbat there was difficult. The new Rabbi wanted to keep alive Gabi’s traditions, and he had each guest introduce him or herself, tell a story, start a song, share a dvar Torah, or talk about a mitzvah (commandment) her or she was trying to work on. Many of the guests had known Gabi and Rivky, and the reminisced about the Holtzbergs, while thanking the new shluchim for their courage in keeping Chabad of Mumbai alive.  

Over the course of the summer, I observed the transition and progress of the new shluchim as they worked to create a comforting atmosphere of their own and provide guests with a space in which to remember Gabi and Rivky, to celebrate our strength as a people and to inspire Jewish observance.  

When I said goodbye to the Holtzbergs after Tisha B’Av in 2008, I did not know that I would never walk to synagogue with Gabi again. I couldn’t know that never again would I enjoy the sight of him in his black coat and hat shuffling through throngs of colorfully dressed Indian women and chai-sipping men in Mumbai’s bazaars; that  Rivky and I would not have another heart to heart in the kitchen while preparing Israeli salad for Friday night dinner. Nor could I imagine that I would never again see little Moshie—standing on a chair sporting his bowtie and patent leather shabbos-shoes–holding Gabi’s hand as he recited Kiddush on Shabbat.

I remember once observing Gabi and Rivky as they studied Torah together. Rivky leaned toward Gabi, the two peering closely into a book. They seemed happy to have this rare moment to relax and draw inspiration from each other, and from the text.

Maybe they are learning together in heaven now. 

Hillary Lewin is pursuing a Ph.D in clinical psychology.

Click here to watch a video on Mumbai compiled by Dov Zmood.


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