Rivky Holtzberg z"l, Hillary Lewin (R), and 2 year old Moshe - who was saved by the nanny.

Hillary Lewin (pictured on the right) is a PhD candidate at the Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology (Yeshiva University) and spent five memorable weeks in Mumbai with Yeshiva University on a Global Health Seminar. Rivky Holtzberg is pictured on the left. Thanks to Menachem Butler for helping bring this article to us.

To Rivky and Gabi: My Heroic Friends, Role Models and Family in Mumbai, I Will Miss You Very Much

Many of you first heard of the Holtzberg family three days ago when news of the Mumbai hostage situation emerged. I feel compelled to write this letter, because I want the world to know who Rivky and Gabi Holtzberg were in life and to tell you what I witnessed of their accomplishments in their brief 28 years on earth. While I am devastated by their death, I am thankful that my life and so many others were touched by their purity, friendship and spirit.

Before I entered the Chabad house in Mumbai, I thought, “What kind of people would leave a comfortable and secure life in a religious community to live in the middle of Mumbai; a dirty, difficult, crowded city?” As I got to know Rivky and Gabi over the course of this past summer, I understood that G-d creates some truly special people willing to devote their lives to bettering the world.
I was first welcomed by Rivky, who had a big smile on her face and her baby Moishie in her arms. She ushered me and my fellow travelers into the Chabad house and immediately offered us something to eat and a sofa to rest on. We quickly became good friends. We bonded with the Holtzberg family and the staff at Chabad, including Sandra, the heroine who saved baby Moishie’s life.

Like his parents, Moishe is a sweet, loving, happy baby. He was so attached to Rivky and Gabi. He got so excited to sing Shabbat Z’mirot (songs) every Friday night with his father, and I could tell by the light on Gabi’s face when they were singing together, that he looked forward to it too. It breaks my heart that I can still hear Moishie’s voice calling, “Ima, Ima, Ima”, and she will no longer be able to hold him or rock him in her arms.

On my second Shabbat at Chabad, Rivky told me there were two Israeli men staying at the house who were just released from an Indian prison. When I saw these men sitting at the dinner table, I was startled. One man had only a front tooth and a raggedy pony tail, and the other looked like an Israeli version of Rambo. I observed the way that Gabi interacted with them and how they were welcomed at the Shabbat table the same way everyone else was, and my fears melted away. Over the course of the night, I learned that these men were not the only prisoners or ex-convicts the Holtzberg’s helped. Gabi frequently brought Kosher meals to Israelis in prison, spent time with them, listened to their life stories, and took them in after their release.

I realized that Gabi and Rivky’s job was not only to run a Chabad house and provide warm meals and beds for weary Jewish travelers, it was much greater. The Holtzberg’s were running a remarkable operation. They took their jobs as shlichim (emissaries) very seriously. Their lives never stopped. There was no such thing as “personal space” or “downtime”. The phones rang constantly, people came in and out like a subway station, and all the while Rivky and Gabi were calm, smiling, warm, and welcomed everyone like family.

Rivky spent each day cooking dinner with the chefs for 20-40 people, while Gabi made sure to provide meat for everyone by going to the local markets and schechting (koshering) chickens himself. They also provided travelers with computers for internet access, so that they wouldn’t have to pay for internet cafes. They even took care of our laundry. Having spent much time abroad, it was clear to me that Rivky and Gabi were unusual tzadikim (righteous people).

On my last Shabbat in India, I slept in Rivky and Gabi’s home, the 5th floor of the Chabad house. I noticed that their apartment was dilapidated and bare. They had only a sofa, a bookshelf, a bedroom for Moishie, and a bedroom to sleep in. The paint peeled from the walls, and there were hardly any decorations. Yet, the guest quarters on the two floors below were decorated exquisitely, with American-style beds, expansive bathrooms, air conditioning (a luxury in India) and marble floors. We called these rooms our “healing rooms” because life was so difficult in Mumbai during the week. We knew that when we came to Chabad, Rivky and Gabi would take care of us just like our parents, and their openness and kindness would rejuvenate us for the week to come.

The juxtaposition of their home to the guest rooms was just another example of what selfless, humble people Rivky and Gabi were. They were more concerned about the comfort of their guests than their own.

The Holtzberg’s Shabbat table was a new experience each week. Backpackers, businessmen, diplomats and diamond dealers gathered together to connect with their heritage in an otherwise unfamiliar city. We always knew we were in for a surprise where an amazing story would be told, either by Gabi or a guest at the table. For each meal, Gabi prepared about seven different divrei torah (words of torah) to share. Though most of them were delivered in Hebrew (and I caught about 25%), his wisdom, knowledge and ability to inspire amazed me. Rivky and Gabi were accepting of everyone who walked through their doors, and they had no hidden agendas. Rivky once told me that there was one holiday where they had no guests. It was just herself, Gabi and Moishie. I expected her to say how relieved she was not to have guests, but she told me it was, in fact, the only lonely holiday they ever spent in India.

I remember asking Gabi if he was afraid of potential terror threats. Although his demeanor was so sweet and gentle, Gabi was also very strong-minded and determined. He told me simply and sharply that if the terrorists were to come, “be my guest, because I’m not leaving this place.” Both he and Rivky believed that their mission in Mumbai was far greater than any potential terror threats.

Everything Rivky and Gabi did came from their dedication, love and commitment to the Jewish people and to G-d. I cannot portray in words how remarkable this couple was. If there is anything practical that I can suggest in order to elevate their souls, please try to light candles this Friday night for Shabbat, improve relationships with family members and friends, try to connect to others the way that Rivky and Gabi did- with love, acceptance and open arms. There is so much to learn from them. May their names and influence live on, and inspire us in acts of kindness and love.

Sincerely,
Hillary

About the author

Rabbi Yonah

14 Comments

  • Thank you for sharing this. Rivky and Gabi seemed like rare, wonderful people. It is obvious by the lives they touched, that their families do not grieve alone.

  • Hi, I am from Bombay and was just looking online to read more about the Holtzbergs and their life in Chabad / Nariman House. Thank you for your article. Simply amazing what they did over here. Sad that they died so horridly in my city. They that could not harm a soul will be avenged. Such a terrible crime cannot go unpunished. I only hope that Chabad will continue in their task with dauntless courage and not be changed by what has happened here.

  • How can I balance the ever more great things I learn about the Rabbi and Rabbineet that have bravely fallen to the ever more disturbing news from the attacks? I have learned more about the awesomeness of the
    Holtzbergs from Non-Chabad sources then the Chabad ones…

    Yet I feel a need to vent this:
    Apparently Rivkah, May her name be Remembered….,
    was 5 months pregnant at the time.
    Additionally it was also discovered from apparent evidense that the terrorists did their familiar tactic of drugging themselves for combat.

    Each time I hear of the ever more extreme desperation and heinousness
    of our enemies, I ask myself, “How low will these desperados go till they stop? The hatefull

    enemies that perpetuate these crimes just keep on reaching ever more new lows.”
    I hope the Indians will treat these lifeless wretches with the appropriate justice.

    Everybody I know that has the self esteem to live is just sick of this….

    The trouble is these mushuganers are taught not to value life itself. From what I understand
    that is their open philosophy. I think they are going to get what they want…

    The Indians may be providing this fulfillment…

  • Thank you for sharing the friendship you shared with this beautiful couple. May the way they led their lives be an inspiration to us all. G-d bless Moishie and the loved ones of these two righteous people.

  • I wish I can just focus on the positive like the lady here did in her description of her experience with the Holtzbergs in that Chabad House. The thing is I have been to dozens of Chabad Houses where Rabbis and Rabineets such as Gabi and Rivky have welcomed me hundreds of hundreds of times each. Yeah, I am a Chabadnik by education at least…but still I see the faces of the two ladys pictured above reminding me of the many who like them have Chabad Houses and the nightmare of the events there and think of the VIOLATION that took place.
    Worse then the Tishba Av Kadshay Kadoshim. The lady there being targeted and … for what?

    Ad Motaiy? How many Karbonot…? Not just How many but these…How can we stand this?
    I heard plans on rebuilding. I hope we send more ppl there.

  • Hillary
    what a zchut you had for getting to know personally such remarkable people who made such a difference in the lives of fellow jews – and all out of ahavat chesed! Thank you also for sharing your experiences and your encouragement to respond to the attack in the best ways to memorialize what Rivki and Gabi stood for. May you be blessed with a life full of nachas and good health
    Susan

  • I’m a Hindu guy,but first of all I apologise to my Jewish brothers & sisters as the gory murder of this nice couple happened to be in a city of my India! Shame on me for not being able to save bro Gavriel & his wife sister Rivka from these terrorists !

  • I swear that words cannot describe my agony when I saw little Moshe crying for his parents,I was further hurt to see the photo of his innocent and lovable parents! Their sacrifice hasn’t gone waste as I vow to play my part for protecting Jews in India!

  • May their souls of the couple rest in peace and their killers be given the most painful
    punishment by God !

  • I just keep on crying, reading your article and others, thinking about how amazing these people were and how this small child has been left traumatized and bereft of both his parents. it makes me sad, outraged! I once heard that many times G-d chooses to take away the extraordinary people from this world, to shake the world into improving their deeds on behalf of the lost ones. it makes the impact of what they did for the world all the greater and motivates us to continue their mission. this serves as somewhat of a compensation, but its not nearly enough to stop these tears, this gnawing pain inside at losing such a fundamental limb of our nation.

Leave a Comment