Chabad in Mumbai, Viewed from Israel

5 b Kislev. Today the funerals were held for the kedoshim murdered in Mumbai. I happen to be staying at the Jerusalem home of my brother who is very active in Chabad. We came from assimilated Jewish American homes. He affiliated himself with Chabad in his Austin college days, and raised his seven children to aspire to be “shluchim” and live lives of noble service, as exemplified so beautifully by R. Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg, Hy”d. My brother and I listened to a derasha by R. Gavriel that is now on the internet and which R. Gavriel gave exactly 4 years ago when he spoke at the Conference of Shluchim in Brooklyn in 5765 (2004). R.Kotlarsky introduces him in Yiddish, and R.Gavriel himself speaks in Hebrew. It was around the time of parashas Toldos/Vayetze as it is now, and R. Gavriel cited the Rebbe who pointed out that at the end of Toldos Jacob is sent on “shlichus.” In the first verse of Vayetze (Gen.28:10) Jacob goes “Harona” (to Haron) and the midrash and Zohar point out that he is sent out of the Holy Land to a place that is “haron apo shel HaShem” – a spiritually challenged venue.

Similarly shluchim must leave their own holy environs and go out, sometimes to a “haron apo” place. R. Gavriel then describes the beginning of their stay in Mumbai where the religious philosophy was so problematic, and was so different from what he had known that he decided to review thoroughly the tractate Avoda Zara in order to know how to cope spiritually in India. He relates some anecdotes about the challenges faced by him and his wife to build their home and Beit Chabad surrounded by a weltanschauung so contrary to their beliefs. The spiritual and physical difficulties in such a place would discourage all but the most idealistic and motivated.

I got to understand this idealism by observing my brother’s children over the years. It wasn’t easy for him to be associated with Chabad in Bayit vGan, a bastion of modern haredi life, but he succeeded. His oldest daughter and her husband are shluchim in a difficult area of the Ukraine, where water and electricity are sporadic during the day. They just had a baby girl after 7 boys, the oldest being eleven -years-old. They run a shul, school, Shabbatonim, etc. My brother’s eldest son went out there also, with his wife and four little ones, under five. I mention all this because although I did not know R. Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg, Hy”d, through my nieces and nephews I can understand from where they are coming spiritually. Despite my reservations about some aspects of the Chabad approach, I have the utmost respect for and envy of their idealism.

I was curious to see how the tragedy would be portrayed in the Litvishe Yated Neeman newspaper, which years ago was strongly opposed to some facets of Chabad. You can see on the internet that Yated devoted extensive front-page coverage to the tragic news on Sunday (3bKislev) of the murderous outcome in Mumbai.

Yated made it clear that the attack was on Beit Chabad. But in the front page stories of Yated of 5 bKislev, the day of the funerals, they mention that R. Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg “lived in Beit Chabad with their two-year-old son.” No mention of shlichus, why the were living there, or of their extraordinary outreach and hospitality, their teaching Torah (see clips of R. Gavriel teaching and talking about his work) Yated gave extensive coverage to two other victims, R. Kroman Hy”d and R. Teitelbaum, Hy”d, from Bobov, Bat Yam and Toldot Avraham-Yitzhak,Meah Shearim, respectively). Some commented that Yated’s coverage of Chabad was insufficient. I see this coverage by Yated as the cup being half full.

It may be that R. Kroman and R. Teitelbaum (non-Chabad haredim) had reservations, too, about Chabad, but this did not stop them from going there to study and pray. Perhaps this is a model for us – respecting differences but emphasizing the commonalities.
Yehey zichram baruch.

Shira Schmidt

Shira Leibowitz Schmidt was raised in an assimilated Jewish home in New York, and became observant while studying at Stanford University in California. In June 1967 she told her engineering school professor she would miss the final exam because she was going to Israel to volunteer during the Six Day War. “That’s the most original excuse I have ever been offered,” he responded. She arrived during the war and stayed, receiving her BSc in absentia. She subsequently met and married the late Elhanan Leibowitz, and they raised their six children in Beersheba. Mrs. Leibowitz acquired a Masters in Urban & Regional Planning from the Technion, and an MSc in Civil Engineering from University of Waterloo. Today she lives with her husband, Dr. Baruch Schmidt, in Netanya. She co-authored, with Nobel prize-winning chemist Roald Hoffmann, Old Wine New Flasks. She has co-translated from Hebrew to English (with Jessica Setbon) From the Depths (the autobiography of Rabbi Israel Meir Lau); The Forgotten Memoirs (memoirs of Rabbis who survived the Shoah, edited by Esther Farbstein); and Rest of the Dove (Parashat Hashavua by Rabbi Haim Sabato). She and her husband appear in the documentary film about the Sanz-Klausenberger Rebbe, “Hidden Face.” She is available to lecture in Israel and in the US and can be contacted via

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19 Responses

  1. LOberstein says:

    I echo everyone’s comments that it is unfortunate that it takes a tragedy like this or the Mercaz Harav murders to bring unity. There are real philisophical differences and we can each have our approach.No one can argue with the fact that Chabad has inculcated an army of shluchim and inspired them to live in places where another frum Jew would and could not. I asked a shaliach recently how he could live in such a place and he pointed to the Rebbe’s picture on the wall and told me that he wouldn’t be able to do it, but the Rebbe’s ability is what gives him the ability. However one understands that, this gives them the ability to be in places and interact with Jews.
    There are so many Jews falling away from observance, some from the finest homes. I hope Hashem gives the Rebbe’s shlucim the wisdom to bring back the souls to Yiddishkeit. It isn’t only kids from secular homes, we have a tsunami and Chabad is a life raft.

  2. Shira Schmidt says:

    Mr. Loberstein described the crux of the conundrum. The selfless devotion to a good cause is often inspired by devotion to a great leader. But the other side of the coin is that this can be taken (by those on the fringe) to an extreme and in some cases can result in cult of personality. When applied to a large group of people, can you have the positive aspect without the negative? I don’t know.

  3. Shiras Schmidt says:

    My brother sent in these comments:
    You could have written that Rabbi Kotlarski and Rabbi Shem-tov (heads of the shluchim) noted that thousands of women lit Shabbos candles in anticipation of the Hotzberg’s survival. Why not note that the “Batei Chabad” are the only place in the world outside of Eretz Yisroel where one can find the variety of Jewish religious diversity as demonstrated in the backgrounds of the victims.

  4. yankel younger says:

    I think you should differentiate between the Hebrew language Yated published in Israel and the paper published in the United States, whose coverage does not fit what you described.

  5. tzippi says:

    And Rabbi Oberstein, what is especially unfortunate and tragic is the adjective you left out, short-lived, as in short-lived unity. There are going to be major gatherings, and as time goes by and it is possible, difficult though possible, to try to get a perspective on this, I hope that there will be major emphasis on the connection between Mercaz Harav and Mumbai, what we should have, can and must learn from these tragedies.

    The tragedy has been compounded by news that Rivki Holtzberg was pregnant. Let’s rewrite history and imagine Mumbai wouldn’t have happened, but that in a few months we might have heard that a shlucha in Indian gave birth to a healthy baby after previous tragedies (their first two children). Would we have given it a second thought? Can we summon the energy to try to feel as much – at least, some – simcha for the everyday good and triumphs another Jew experiences as we do pain for the horrific tragedies?

  6. Shmuel says:

    Reporting about the well known fact that Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg zyl hyd and his pregnant wife Rivka Holtzberg zl hyd were Chabad shluchim should be part and parcel of such a news report. Their acts of kindness and generosity to Jews and Gentiles should not be kept secret. Even President Bush wrote about their selfless dedication to the klal.

    Similarly, however, the great lives of some of the others who were brutally killed, such as R’ Leibish Teitelbaum zy hd and R’ Kroman zl hyd, as well as the lady who was planning on making aliyah in just days, etc, deserve mention in ALL publications.

    It is perhaps telling that the lives of the haredim killed were not highlighted. Instead, the Israeli media focused on the claim that the family refused to have an Israeli flag placed on R’ Teitelbaum’s coffin, or to participate in a politicized ceremony wherein members of the Israeli government would speak.

    [No one thought to frame this as quite reasonable: this American citizen had moved to Israel, where together with his Israel-born wife he was raising eight children; he did not have Israeli citizenship, and it would have been offensive to have a politicized event, etc]

    In addition, the NY Times continued for days to suggest that the attack on Chabad House was accidental. Their insistence on calling the spiritual leader of this Chabad shul a “manager” of a “Jewish center” may have been accidental. [Personally, I doubt it was accidental–I suspect it was part and parcel of their aim to minimize the anti-Semitic, anti-Hindu, and anti-Christian nature of these terrorists, and to package it was some sort of anti-Western event.]

    However, for the YATED to ignore the most basic facts of Rabbi and Rebbetzin Holtzberg hyd bespeaks a certain approach for which the term ‘narrow minded’ will not sufice.

    We need unity, and ahavas chinam (selfless love for one another), and now is not the time for divisiveness.

    To our enemies, we are all one. Would that we thought the same of ourselves.

  7. cvmay says:

    (by those on the fringe) to an extreme and in some cases can result….

    This is apparent among many groups of Torah Jews, the individuals on the fringe bring an extremism in behaviour and action to the entire kehilla.
    Chassidish groups that verbally & physically fight with each other, kanoim that burn down bus stops, flags, billboards and other public property, wild youthful settlers igniting flames, irrational and inflamatory statements written and distributed without chomah, sum up a negative outlook towards mainly positive kehillos.

  8. Charlie Hall says:

    Does Rabbi Holtzberg talk about the native Jewish community in and around Mumbai? Jews have lived in that part of India for over 2000 years and must have figured out how to survive in an environment where almost everyone else was a polytheist.

  9. Ori says:

    Tzippi: Can we summon the energy to try to feel as much – at least, some – simcha for the everyday good and triumphs another Jew experiences as we do pain for the horrific tragedies?

    Ori: We can’t, and thank G-d for that. The reason is that these simchas are common, and the horrific tragedies are rare. Most of us can’t feel intense happiness or pain every day and stay sane.

    We feel pain at the horrific tragedies precisely because they are rare. If our grandparents had felt such pain, day in and day out, during the holocaust they wouldn’t have survived.

  10. YM says:

    Shira, there is no reason why you should have to envy the idealism of the Chabad shiluchim. We can all choose to emulate them. Many people think that the Chabad shiluchim are sent out with a line of credit to get their houses started; my understanding is that they have to raise 100% of the costs themselves. If they can do it, so can you!

  11. L Oberstein says:

    Finding fault with others is so much easir than self improvement.On the other hand, we can’t ignore and simply paper over real fundamental differences of hashkafa among various groups. If I have a choice, I would prefer the Jews who reach out to the ones who exclude. Maybe the differences that are important are not those of ideology but those of midos and menchlichkeit.
    I know that Chabad is there for me or my children, whether it be in Mid Town Manhattan where my son tells me he is often the 10th man Shabbos morning or in Mumbai, where another son ate often in the Holzman’s home on business trips to buy diamonds. These people really love me.
    How can I explain those Jews who exclude 3 year old girls whose fathers are American Kollel yungeleit from their Bais Yaakov. How can these people be called religious, what religion is it? Who is closer to Hashem, one who believes that he knows the name of the Mashiach or one whose midos ro os keep the Mashiach from coming?

  12. Rachel W says:

    Yes, I see what you are saying. But I, too, am disappointed by the coverage provided by many other forums (and I will not list them now) for focusing solely on the Chabad Sheluchim who were murdered Al Kiddush Hashem (in santification of Hashem’s name) and did not give too much coverage to the other chareidi men who were killed. THey, too, were in a land that is very foreign to them to provide us with our needs.

    We think we cannot live without canned mushrooms and, now, eleven children will have to grow up without a father and two young women will have to raise those orphans and face life without their husbands. Does anyone think, while enjoying all the delicacies that they can’t manage without that young fathers travel the world to be sure that they can enjoy those kosher foods? That, in essence, we sent these men to India to be killed because of our needs? I have not heard one word about this. I cna’t sleep at night thinking about these poor families. (I also can’t bring myself to open a can of mushrooms, even thought I enjoy mushrooms as much as anyone else.)

  13. saul says:

    Rachel W., There were two other holy kedoshim who were murdered at the Chabad House. 2 wonderful mothers, sisters to others and grandmother of some…..we mourn them also.

  14. tzippi says:

    Ori, I understand that this is human nature. But by that logic, during the worst of the intifada, when the bad news came daily and people were getting desensitized, was that a good thing?

    True, we can’t feel such intense joy, or at least most ordinary people can’t. But feeling some joy, more often, strikes me as not just nice, and something that might build much need zechuyos, but pretty downright sane.

  15. Dovid Eliezrie says:

    First I appreciate Shira Schmidt’s kind words.

    We in Chabad have been deeply touched by the outpouring from the diverse parts of the Frum community. The support, care, compassion has been deeply appreciated. One of those strong expressions has been the remarkable editorial by Yated in the US. Clearly from that perspective of difference in viewpoints that has existed for so long it is a beautiful act of common destiny. In some ways due to these differences an act of journalistic courage. You can read it here:

    Sadly Yated in Israel, a totally different paper than the US one, has not left the shackles of Maklokes that it has championed against Lubavitch. However it seems looking at the frum media as a whole, and the outpouring of true concern from the all, they are but a small minority. Shira may see Israel Yated as a glass half full, I see it as an unwillingness to fill the glass. The could not ignore the reality of the killing of two kedoshim but they fail to have the integrity to recognize them for who they are.

    The good that has come, and hopefully will continue to come from this great tragedy is a kiruv levoves that can strengthen the bonds between Yidden. And as Rabbi Pinchus Lipshultz wrote in the US Yated, we are all Shevatim of Am Yisroel.

  16. Ori says:

    Tzippi: But by that logic, during the worst of the intifada, when the bad news came daily and people were getting desensitized, was that a good thing?

    Ori: At the risk of sounding heartless, yes. Not the same kind of good as when you have peace, but the kind of good you have when after a battle it’s your soldiers that are alive and the enemy’s that are dead. Not as good, but better than the alternative. People who can’t get desensitized when they need to wouldn’t be able to survive in the Middle East.

    Tzippi: True, we can’t feel such intense joy, or at least most ordinary people can’t. But feeling some joy, more often, strikes me as not just nice, and something that might build much need zechuyos, but pretty downright sane.

    Ori: I agree with this. If you can get yourself to feel such joy, it would be good. I don’t know if I can control my feelings like that.

  17. Rachel W says:

    Saul- we certainly do mourn them along with the Kedoshim that have been killed all over the world for the simple reason that they are Jews. What I was trying to say (though I did a very bad job of it) was that the two mashgichim (kashrus supervisors) along with Rabbi and Rebetzin Holtzberg were in Mumbai doing OUR mission – the Holtzbergs were bringing Jews closer to Torah (which is the responsibility of each of us) and the other men were making sure we get kosher food to eat (in essence, by creating a demand for the food, we sent them to India). The two women were unfortunately in the wrong place at the wrong time, though from reading about all that the Holtzbergs accomplished, it seems miraculous that there were only 7 adults in the Chabad house at the time of the attack (one escaped).

  18. zalman says:

    Rachel W – Of Course we must mourn all yidden killed al Kiddush Hashem. But just as you make differentiation between the mashgichim (working for us kosher food consumers) and the other women “wrong time and place” — there is a clear difference between the mashgichim and the Shluchim, and that’s what the media picked up on.

    The Mashgichim are in India (or China etc.) for a week or so and then return home out of harm’s way. Their kids live in a Yiddishe environment, go to Yiddishe schools, and have all the amenities for a frum life in their communities.

    The Shluchim on the other hand have moved to India (or China, Chile, Vietnam etc.) for life. That means if they need kosher food they have to provide it themselves. They have to either be a shochet or bring one in to have meat. If they need a mikvah they have to build it or upkeep an existing one themselves.

    They will have to bring up their children in their city. In many cases they will have to home-school their children if there is no appropriate school. When their boys reach the tender age of 9 they will have to send them abroad. (This is one of the hardest parts of shlichus.)

    The Holtzbergs in addition to the above, displayed almost super-human mesiras nefesh. As it has been widly reported they had to make the horrendous decision to either abandon their shlichus and go back to Israel and watch their terminal children die, or leave them in a institution and visit as often as possible in order to “continue igniting new neshomos in India”. Ultimately they chose to “continue to ignite new neshomos.”

    These types of Mesiras nefesh are not common. And they certainly deserve the deep respect and thorough coverage they received in the media.

  19. Chaim Wolfson says:

    I agree with Zalman’s comments. It’s not enough to focus on how the Holtzberg’s died; I think it’s even more important to focus on how they lived. At a gathering in Monsey this past Motzai Shabbos sponsered by the Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation, R’ Ephraim Wachsman pointed out how unfortunate it is that it took the tragic events in the Chabad house in Mumbai to make us realize that despite our differences we really do love each other. But the Holtzbergs themselves didn’t need to be taught that lesson; the life of selflessness they lived is the greatest testement to their ahavas Yisrael. Perhaps the more we learn the lesson of the Holtzberg’s lives, the less we will have to be taught the lesson of their deaths in the future.

    [The speeches at the Motzai Shabbos gathering can be heard on the “Chazak hotline”, by dialing (718) 258-2008 and then pressing 43. It is a worthwhile listen, especially R’ Wachsman’s speech.]

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