In November of 2008, Islamic terrorists entered the Chabad House run by Rabbi Gabi and Rivky Holtzberg in Mumbai, India, and murdered them and four of their guests in cold blood. In the immediate aftermath of the gruesome attack, photos of the smiling couple were transposed with images of their crying 2-year-old son, Moishe, and the bullet-riddled shell of the Jewish center the Holtzbergs had built in the heart of India’s largest city.
Despite the devastation of an attack that paralyzed a subcontinent and transfixed the world, Chabad’s crucial work in Mumbai continued unabated. The goal, say those who were involved with ensuring Chabad’s presence in Mumbai, was to make certain that the Holtzbergs’ work of spreading goodness and kindness by offering Jewish programs of every kind to local residents and visitors continued stronger than ever.
On Tuesday, Aug. 26, surrounded by guests and more than 25 Chabad emissaries in Asia who will be there for a regional conference, Chabad of Mumbai’s headquarters—also known as Nariman House—will open its doors once again.
“This will definitely be very emotional for many people,” affirms Rabbi Yisroel Kozlovsky, who now co-directs Chabad of Mumbai together with his wife, Chaya. “This six-story building was continuously operating until the attack. We’re not moving into a new building; we are returning to our original building, and we will be continuing all of the activities that took place here, and hopefully, grow even more.
“We remember what happened, but we are working for the future.”
Years in the Making
Gabi and Rivky Holtzberg moved to Mumbai in 2003, establishing a Chabad House to serve Israeli backpackers, international Jewish businesspeople and the local Indian Jewish community. He was a soft-spoken shochet, mohel and Torah scholar; she was an empathetic and warm host and shlucha, always ready to lend a listening ear.
The Holtzbergs came to be known and loved by those they encountered, and their activities rapidly grew. Soon, Gabi purchased Nariman House—a large building in the Colaba neighborhood of Mumbai not far from the iconic Gateway to India—to serve as their full-time Chabad center.
One of Gabi Holtzberg’s closest mentors and supporters was Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, who had advised and encouraged the young rabbi even before he stepped foot in India. It was he who helped Gabi secure the necessary funds from the Rohr Family Foundation to purchase Nariman House, and the two remained in close contact while the Holzbergs worked in Mumbai.
The attack left a deep imprint on him, and at the couple’s funeral, which was televised around the world and drew thousands of mourners, Kotlarsky vowed to rebuild their center and their mission.
He explains that while redoing the physical center was undoubtedly important, continuing to reach out to Jews from every background—the mission the Holtzbergs ultimately gave their lives for—was the central goal.
“We didn’t pause after this great tragedy,” recalls Kotlarsky. “We regrouped immediately and continued working, never stopping. That was our response to what happened in Mumbai.”
No sooner had the emotional funeral and customary seven days of mourning passed did Chabad programs resume in the traumatized city, first through rotating shifts of young rabbinical students from abroad working out of rented apartments and then with the eventual arrival of the Kozlovskys.
“We build communities,” says Kotlarsky of Chabad’s response in the weeks following the attack. “Therefore, while reconstructing the building was something we felt was important, serving the Jews in Mumbai, both locals and foreigners, was and continues to be our priority.”
Kozlovsky explains that after a year-and-a-half of living and working together with his wife in Mumbai, he more fully understands why Gabi rushed to purchase a large building for his operation.
“There are so many possible complications here, bureaucratic and otherwise, that it becomes very difficult to work without a permanent base,” he says. “Now we will have security rooms, a synagogue, offices, guest rooms, a restaurant and a commercial kitchen. It will be very different than running things out of a 1,200-square-foot apartment, but it will, G‑d willing, allow us to grow. And it is, of course, fitting that we do this in the same place as Gabi and Rivky.”
He adds that the official opening will also serve as the starting point for the next phase of reconstruction: a $2.5 million museum to be built in the apartment where the Holtzbergs lived and on the floor where most of the murders occurred.
Kozlovsky notes that when people entered the wreckage of the building after the attack, they quickly grew emotional. “I think for people to learn about Gabi and Rivky, and the lives they led here—in the place where they worked and lived and were taken from—it could have a very powerful, positive effect on people.”
A ‘Joint Statement’
Timed to coincide with the building’s reopening, Mumbai will also play host to the regional conference of more than 25 Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries in Asia, organized by Rabbi Yosef Chaim Kantor, who serves as both director of Chabad of Thailand and Chabad regional director. Kantor, too, was intimately involved with the Holtzbergs’ work, and following the terror attack threw himself into the rebuilding process.
Through his tireless efforts—Kantor has traveled to Mumbai countless times in the last half-decade—the new emissaries have settled in, and the Chabad House’s renovation is at last complete. He says it is only fitting that this city, which has seen the darkest of times, hosts a gathering of spiritual torch-bearers—namely, the surrounding Chabad emissaries.
“The ‘lamplighters’ from throughout Asia, the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s (Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory) shluchim on this side of the world, are going to be in Mumbai to honor the work that our colleague started, and was so abruptly and shockingly stopped,” Kantor explains. “We want to make a joint statement that the work here continues.”
He adds that there is no way of getting around the symbolism behind the reconstruction effort and the reopening, and sees it as the most proper response to terror, no matter where it has been perpetrated. “This was a building that was built with hard work and was full of life,” he says, “and now we have the opportunity to use it once again for holiness.”
“I think this is really a message for the whole world,” adds Kotlarsky. “You can overcome challenges, even the most horrific of challenges. You can and must rebuild, and this project serves as a beacon of light and hope that evil will not prevail.”
The Work Continues
By all accounts, Jewish life in Mumbai has benefited a great deal since the Kozlovskys arrived. And the size of the community itself has grown, including the new addition six weeks ago. Chaya Kozlovsky gave birth to their second child, a baby boy, whose brit milah was celebrated at the Knesses Eliyahu Synagogue in the city.
“I think it’s the first Indian Menachem Mendel,” jokingly observes the new father.
While continuing ongoing Chabad projects, many of which were initiated by the Holtzbergs, the Kozlovskys have worked diligently on increasing their activities. A Jewish kindergarten will open in time for this school year, and with the recent opening of Mumbai’s new diamond district in a different part of the city, they have established a satellite Chabad center in that area to serve business travelers.
It took time before the right couple could be found to fill the void left by their predecessors, but those familiar with the Mumbai community and charged with finding a new couple say they have been electrified by the couple’s work and presence thus far.
“Rabbi Kozlovsky has done a tremendous job,” says Kantor. “He’s energetic and enthusiastic, and he’s got the mission uppermost in his mind.”
Yossi Gansbourg, a Montreal native working in the diamond industry who has been traveling to Mumbai consistently for the last five years for business, visited Mumbai before the terrorist attack. In fact, he volunteered in Chabad’s “Roving Rabbis” program, assisting Gabi in his work at the Chabad House.
“The diamond bursa used to be near the Opera House, and then it moved to a new area, so Rabbi Kozlovsky has a space on that side of town with organized prayers and kosher food. It’s a place where Jewish businesspeople can gather,” says Gansbourg, adding that he is impressed with how much the two have been able to accomplish in the short amount of time they’ve been in Mumbai.
Gansbourg’s family connection to the Holtzbergs and to Mumbai itself runs deep. His father, Berel Gansbourg, has been visiting Mumbai for some 20 years and was instrumental in helping the Holtzbergs settle in the city. So when the building reopening was scheduled, Yossi Gansbourg made sure to arrange to be there.
“I don’t know what I’ll feel until the event happens,” he acknowledges, “but it will probably still be a bittersweet type of an event.”
It is not only business types who have gained from Chabad’s presence. One Jewish woman—a Mumbai local who asked to be identified only as Sarah—recalls meeting Rabbi Kozlovsky on Purim day, right after they arrived in India. She had come late to synagogue, missing the reading of the Megillah. But sure enough, the rabbi invited her to his home to hear a Megillah reading. Since then, she says she has grown closer to both the Kozlovskys and her heritage.
“India, and specifically Mumbai, can create challenges for a person who comes from the West. The language and cultural differences can be overwhelming to anyone who is not used to it, but nothing stands in the rabbi’s way,” insists Sarah. “The Chabad House is always open to anyone, from morning to evening; the rabbanit Chaya is always there to make sure visitors will have a warm meal and place to sit around the table.”
Reflecting on the upcoming event, Sarah says it is truly inspiring: “Many people around the world and in Mumbai are looking forward to the reopening of the Chabad House, as it symbolizes the Jewish spirit and belief of looking forward with great faith.”