The last Shabbat in Mumbai

There was an unusually rapturous mood at Sha'ar Shamayim Synagogue.

holtzberg 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy
holtzberg 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy
On the last Shabbat evening in Mumbai before Rivka and Gavriel Holtzberg were brutally murdered by Islamic terrorists, there was an unusually rapturous mood at the Sha'ar Shamayim Synagogue. "There were barely 10 of us, but we spontaneously broke out in song and dance that lasted for a long time," recalled Yossi Katz, a professor of geography at Bar-Ilan University and one of hundreds of travelers who became a one-time guest of the Holtzbergs while passing through India. "Looking back now, I think I know why - that was the last Shabbat of their lives, and it had to be something special." But according to Martin Rapaport, a diamond merchant and publisher of the Rapaport Diamond Report, as well as a guest of the Holtzbergs "dozens of times," every Shabbat spent with the two Chabad emissaries was special. "The point about Gabi and Rivki was that they created this tremendous atmosphere," said Rapaport. "They were like that first seed in the sea that gives birth to the coral reefs that grow around it. You had professors and backpackers, diamond people and millionaires. There were computer programmers in India to train offshore crews, and there were investors looking for prime real estate. And there were also locals, including non-Jews. "I would not be surprised if the terrorists themselves spent a Friday evening at the Holtzbergs," he added. "It was that open." Even before Katz arrived in Mumbai with a box of toys for the Holtzbergs' son, Moishe, who would celebrate his second birthday the following Shabbat - his first as an orphan - the geography professor had been in contact with Rivka's family. Rivka's father, Rabbi Shimon Rosenberg, is a Chabad shaliach (emissary) in Afula, and her brother Shmuelik is a shaliach in Mount Tabor, where Katz lives. The Rosenbergs had sent the toys along with Katz for their grandson. "It's such a small world," said Katz, who recalled how Rivki's father had given a lecture about sanctifying God's name through self-sacrifice at Katz's synagogue just before Katz left for India. When Katz arrived in Mumbai, he was warmly received by Gabi, who showed him a new compilation of correspondence between the last leader of Chabad, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, and various prominent rabbis. "He talked of the Rebbe with such pride," he said. The Holtzbergs had put together an impressive Jewish library with all the traditional mainstays: Bible commentaries, Talmud, halachic tractates and Jewish philosophy. "The library provided travelers with a wholesome alternative to aimless wandering on the streets of Mumbai," said Katz. After the evening prayer at the local synagogue, which was established by Iraqi Jews who settled in India to do business, Katz returned to the Chabad House for Shabbat dinner. "There was a feast fit for a king waiting for us," recalled Katz. Among the people enjoying the Holtzbergs' hospitality were a Belgian diamond merchant, an Israeli woman who also worked in diamonds, an elderly man from the local Jewish community and a middle-aged Jewish woman from Mexico who was planning on making aliya and who was murdered the following Shabbat together with the Holtzbergs. "Each of us was asked to tell something about ourselves. Despite our diverse backgrounds, we quickly felt relaxed and comfortable together. We sang songs into the night. Rivki helped the Mexican woman learn more about Judaism and helped her with the bureaucratic issues involved with aliya." The next morning, Katz accompanied Gabi to the local synagogue, where the young rabbi performed the public reading of the weekly Torah portion. From discussions with the Holtzbergs, Katz discovered that Gabi had managed to raise enough money through donations and loans to buy the five-story Nariman House where the Chabad House was located. "He managed to put the funds together just a few days before his purchase option expired. But he never had a doubt that he would manage to swing it," he said. When Shabbat was over, Gabi showed old video footage of Schneerson orchestrating huge gatherings at Lubavitch headquarters in Brooklyn, where he would lead singing, give divrei Torah (homilies based on the weekly Torah portion), comment on current affairs and encourage his followers to spread Judaism wherever Jews could be found. "I know that he must have seen those videos dozens of times. But Gabi watched them with us as if it were the first time," said Katz. Katz recalled that when it was time for him to go, Gabi had gone out of his way to make sure a taxi would come to the front door of the Nariman House so Katz wouldn't have to carry his luggage too far. "This was not an easy feat, because the Chabad House is located on this really narrow street surrounded by open-air markets. Taxi drivers did not want to take the trouble of maneuvering in, but Gabi insisted. I have never met people like Gabi and Rivki before in my life. They were so open, so warm, so friendly," he said. "The truth is that as soon as I heard that terrorists had broken into the Nariman House, I knew that Gabi and Rivki were probably dead," he admitted. "I knew they would fight any evil person who tried to destroy everything they had built."