The Human Spirit: 'Faith is strength'

The Human Spirit Faith

How much did Moishy see? How much does Moishy remember? The questions haunted me, and I suspect many of the other 2,000 guests who gathered last Wednesday night in the party tent at Kfar Chabad. We had come for a single bittersweet event celebrating Moshe Zvi Holtzberg's third birthday and marking the anniversary of his parents' brutal deaths. Moshe was just two when terrorists murdered his parents, Rivka and Gabriel Holtzberg, in the Chabad House of Mumbai, India last year. He was asleep in his powder blue bedroom on the fifth floor of the building. It was Wednesday, his nanny Sandra Samuel's day off. But Samuel, 40, had decided to stay at the Chabad House and help Rivka with the evening's dinner guests. Rivka was pregnant, expecting a healthy baby after two children had died of a fatal genetic disease. Sandra went downstairs to help the cook clean up after dinner. Suddenly, terrorists burst through the outer door, shooting guns and throwing explosives. Samuel slammed the kitchen door. She and the cook hid between the wall and the refrigerator, not moving all night. Later they would learn that terrorists came to Mumbai by sea and attacked the central railway station, a hotel, a café and the Jewish Center; 170 people were murdered. From her hiding place, Samuel knew nothing but the terror at hand, the occasional gunfire and the silence that followed. Then Samuel heard a cry that tore her heart: "Sanda, Sanda, Sanda!" Moishy was calling her from upstairs. The cook grabbed her sleeve. "Don't go! They'll kill you." But Samuel knew Moishy would never stop crying until she comforted him. The staircase to the second floor was reduced to rubble. She tiptoed, each of her footsteps sounding loud in her ears. There was Moishy on the second floor! How had he gotten out of his crib on the fifth floor? There was no time to wonder. The two-year-old was standing in blood-stained pajamas, near the motionless body of his parents. He lifted his arm to her. She swept him up, pausing only once to reach for his favorite doll from the rubble. Mercifully, Moshe was silent as she escaped through a back alley, safe from harm. LAST WEEK'S event included a thanksgiving meal to celebrate that rescue and Moshe's survival. Guests were processed quickly in a tent antechamber and issued security wrist bands. They filled gender-segregated sections of the red carpeted tent. Many were themselves Chabad emissaries, some back from the annual emissary convention in Crown Heights, New York. Today there are 257 Chabad houses in Israel, usually run by husband-and-wife serving as joint emissaries like the Holtzbergs. The tent tables were beautifully set with tall candelabras and candle arrangements and a full compliment of salads. The efficiency of this massive party bespoke the energy of a movement that can provide matza and horseradish for 1,500 Israelis making a Seder amidst a civil war in Nepal. On the women's side, the ceremony was broadcast on a dozen huge screens. The evening began with recitation of psalms for the dead. Among those reading psalms is Rabbi Yossi Swerdlov, whose personal tragedy has nothing to do with Mumbai. Thirty days earlier, Swerdlov's daughter Shula, just three years old like Moshe, was killed in Jerusalem when her nursery school bus driver ran her over. "During Operation Cast Lead, I gave out bumper stickers to the soldiers that said 'Faith is strength,'" Swerdlov said. "I didn't really know what that meant, but I do now." This is how Job was tested, and Abraham. How much easier it is to maintain your faith when you are wealthy, surrounded by a loving, healthy family. But what if it's all taken away? Taunted Satan: let Abraham take his beloved son Isaac to Mount Moriah and see if he can keep his faith then. Because Moishy was turning three, that night he got his first haircut, a celebratory custom, called upsherin. It marks the transition from babyhood to boyhood. Moishy is old enough to learn his Hebrew letters and to wear ritual garments. He was already wearing ritual fringes, hanging down his suit, and his name was embroidered on his dark kippa. Sorrowfully, his education in Jewish history began far too early. Moishy entered the party tent escorted by his two grandmothers, Freida Holtzberg and Yehudit Rosenberg, as well as beaming nursemaid Sandra Samuel. The grandmothers looked strained and solemn, as if they were struggling to hold back emotions - but then, maybe I was projecting. The evening's emcee had warned the large audience that a three-year-old might easily be crowd-shy. But Moishy neither cried nor squirmed. He was perfectly poised as he climbed up on a Victorian couch for the cutting. With a scissors previously used by the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, grandfathers Holtzberg and Rosenberg cut curls from Moishy's shoulder-length auburn hair. A line of distinguished rabbis and public figures did the same. In the women's section, eyes were wet, talk was replaced with sighs. Only when Grandfather Holtzberg swept Moishy into his arms did he laugh. In an extraordinary demonstration of faith through tragedy, the two bearded grandfathers danced together, Moishy high on their shoulders. 'A YEAR AGO, we stood in this place and buried Rivka and Gabi," one of the rabbis said. "It wasn't the time to think. Sometimes you simply can't think, you just have to act." A cry to do good deeds in the Holtzbergs' memory was issued both by their families and by the Chabad community. Do something for Rivky. Do something for Gabi, they said. An extraordinary list of nearly 13,000 commitments pledged in their names appears on the Web site. Hundreds of men, women and children have promised to study Torah, light Shabbat candles, give more charity, make family Havdala and light Hanukka lights in the Holtzbergs' memory. One person offered to make a song booklet and sing to the elderly. Another offered to donate blood. One person took part in a Lupus Research Walk, and another gave her dog to a neighbor who was lonely. One person committed to working out to improve her health, and another to bring winter coats to a homeless shelter. Writes one, "When negative thoughts or words arouse within me about others, I will stop and mention something positive about the person. This is an attempt to mirror Gabi and Rivka's positive outlook and attitude despite their hard life." Another: "I will remind myself to be less angry. Anger cannot dispel the darkness, only love and light can. In memory of Rivka and Gavriel of blessed memory who continue to light the world with their love and work and who were murdered because of ignorance, fear and anger." My favorite promise on the mitzva list is one contributor's commitment that on "every night of Hanukka I will call one person who I think may be lonely and who will appreciate the call." Hanukka, the holiday of light, is close at hand. In Mumbai, Gabriel used to build a 25-foot Hanukka menora at the Gateway of India monument, Mumbai's famous arch. But at home, the family would light a silver Hanukka menora, the couple's prized wedding gift. The silver candelabra was found among the rubble in India. Moishy will light it this year at his grandparents' home in Afula, where he's growing up. As the sticker says, faith is strength. The link to the list of good deeds mentioned in the article is