Sunday, December 07, 2008

A Tribute To Rav Gavriel Noach Holtzberg z"l

Rav Gavriel Noach Holtzberg z"l

This article originally appeared in Yated Neeman, Monsey NY. and is posted here with their permission

by Eli Willner

A Tribute

It is Motzoei Shabbos Parshas Toldos and I am in Eretz Yisroel. I’m here on business, but, like many other Yidden, I spent Friday glued to the news, hoping against hope for good news out of Mumbai. I went into Shabbos with a sense of foreboding. The latest news, right before candle-lighting, was not encouraging. After Havdallah, our worst fears were confirmed. Gavriel Noach Holtzberg and his rebbetzin, Hy”d, had been murdered.

After my initial shock wore off, I decided to express my feelings in writing. I’m an unlikely candidate to be writing a tribute to a Chabad shliach. My background isn’t Lubavitch and there are doubtless plenty of people who appreciated Gabi’s gadlus better than I, who merely spent several Shabbosos over several years as his guest and exchanged occasional emails with him.

Nonetheless, Gabi made a profound impression on me. I considered him a good friend and had the sense that the feeling was mutual. I don’t doubt that there are dozens, or maybe hundreds, of people who feel the same.

That was part of Gabi’s gadlus. If so, there will be other tributes, and kein yirbu. He deserves them all.

Let me begin by sharing my impressions of Gabi after my first trip to Mumbai, nearly four years ago. The following is an excerpt from a letter to a mutual friend after my return.

Hi, Reb Moshe. I am in the process of getting back into things here, after my trip…

Rabbi Holtzberg is an amazing person… He’s about 27, with two babies, yet he and his wife hosted about 40 people Friday night, and there is no take-out in Mumbai. If you want to eat it, you have to start from scratch (which means shechitah, if you want meat or chicken)! I was impressed by the fact that he accepted with complete aplomb the fact that his home (which doubles as the Chabad House) constantly has people coming and going, sleeping on the couches, whatever, and that completely irreligious Yidden are drawn there for reasons they can’t put their finger on, and that Rabbi Holtzberg has the knack of talking to each individual on his own level (which implies that he also has the ability to assess that level).

Here’s a little excerpt from my trip diary:

I spent Shabbos with Rabbi Holtzberg, who is the Chabad shliach in Mumbai.

It was a wonderful experience. His home is on the top floor of a quaint, old-fashioned - but clean and comfortable - hotel overlooking the Indian Ocean, on a very swank street in the classy part of town. [This was before the Chabad House moved to its current five-story structure.] He has the entire floor, including a huge balcony which overlooks the ocean. He makes his Friday night seudah on the balcony (and he had about forty people there, so you can get an idea of its size). The other seudos he makes inside, since it’s too hot to eat on the balcony when the sun is out. The Rabbi (who is now “Gabi” to me) is a very warm and hospitable man, with two young kids and a rebbetzin who really has her hands full (although she does have local help). He holds dual American/Israeli citizenship; he was born in the Israel but moved to the USA in his youth. He’s most comfortable in Hebrew, but speaks a colloquial American English as well.

His crowd was a mixed bag; about 70% Israeli, divided between post-army kids seeing the world and business people. The rest were from all over the place (even another guy from Brooklyn, if you would believe it). The Israelis were mostly not frum, and mostly not shy about being not frum. They came to the Shabbos seudah complete with handbags, wallets and cell phones. However, given their backgrounds, the amazing thing is that they came at all - and came back Shabbos afternoon, and hung around after the seudah, and seemed to enjoy the ruach of Shabbos and talking with Gabi, who handled it extremely well…

The Chabad house doesn’t have its own minyan. They daven at the Sasson shul, which is the oldest (and now I think one of the only two) shuls in Bombay. It’s officially a frum Sefardi shul, but they have no rov, and haven’t for years, and things seem to have slipped somewhat. Most of the local mispallelim, Gabi tells me, are not frum. The baal koreh is looking back and forth between the Sefer Torah and a Chumash, and might be laining from either one of them at any given moment in time. Gabi is in a delicate position because although they accept his superior knowledge, and defer to him as a Rabbi, he has no authority to institute changes. He is trying, but has to tread carefully. He took over laining for a while, but then the “regular” guy decided he wanted his job back, so that was that. Cell phones ring during davening, and yes, I mean Shabbos davening (but hey, at least they go outside to answer the calls!) There is a kiddush after davening, which Gabi suggested we skip. Until he arrived, people did their own shechitah. He himself is a shochet and now supplies poultry to whoever wants, but some of the old-timers still do their own, and since these are the same guys carrying around their cell phones during davening, there is a problem. So, we skipped the kiddush.

Some background on the Jewish community in Mumbai is in order. Mumbai is better known by its original name Bombay. Its Jewish presence dates back to the 1700s, but the community began to bloom in the early 1800s with the arrival of David Sasson, a Sefardi Jew from Bagdad, who established a vast mercantile empire and built many Jewish institutions, including shuls, yeshivos and mikvaos. At its height, the community numbered over 15,000 people, but it began a steep decline in the 1940s, as economic conditions deteriorated and much of the community moved to the west or to Israel.

Today, the community numbers approximately 5,000 people but the Sasson shul - one of the largest of the seven or eight shuls originally in Mumbai - is in disrepair and barely scrapes together a minyan on Shabbos.

The “tovai ha’ir” are gone and before Rabbi Holtzberg arrived in 2003, the community was essentially leaderless and on a steep decline.

To know Rabbi Holtzberg was to love him. He exuded self-effacing kindness and goodwill and had a knack of making everyone comfortable in his presence. The community might have rejected the arrival of an “outsider” -a foreigner, an Ashkenazi - and, moreover, someone whose presence implied the less than adequate state of their religious observance. But, they welcomed him with open arms. And, with tact, Gabi began the process of raising the standard of religious observance in Mumbai, while at the same time providing a haven for the many Jewish visitors to Mumbai.

The visitors loved Gabi just as the residents did, and their diversity was amazing. They included Israeli backpackers, and tourists and business people ranging from Bnei Brak diamond dealers to Chaim Berliners from Brooklyn, to high-tech Israeli entrepreneurs, to crusty British gentlemen and every kind of Jew in between. Gabi was able to relate to all of them, and - astoundingly - got us to relate amongst ourselves as well.

His M.O. seemed simple, but it takes a person of stature to pull it off successfully and consistently. Kiddush, some good food and a little “mashkeh,” and Gabi announced his “minhag hamakom.” All the guests would introduce themselves, and say a shtikel Torah, relate an inspiring maaseh or suggest a zemirah. Gabi’s sure but subtle hand guided the process to assure that halacha was observed, people’s sensitivities weren’t violated and everyone’s interest was continually engaged. Indeed, the seudah may have been long, but no one was bored, and many lingered afterwards, reluctant to break the spell. I remember one visitor in particular, a distinguished-looking non-frum Israeli who didn’t say much, but who seemed familiar with Gabi’s tish.

When it was his turn to speak, he introduced himself. He was a diplomat from the Israeli consulate in Mumbai and he came to tell Gabi and all those assembled some good news. An Israeli who was arrested and held in an Indian jail was just released and was on a flight back to Lod. The diplomat wanted to thank Gabi for his role in obtaining the release and to publicly acknowledge it. Then he smiled, said “Shabbat shalom,” and left. Gabi, though obviously elated at the news, simply moved on to the next participant.

I had already known that Gabi was the local shochet, mohel, rov, mechanech, baal kriah, baal tokeah and more, but I had no idea of his pidyon shvuyim activities. Gabi didn’t believe in self-aggrandizement; he believed in doing what was necessary to help his fellow Yidden in whatever way was needed, and if that included diplomacy, so be it.

Kiruv was one of Gabi’s primary activities, and one of the most impressive things about him, to this Litvishe Jew, was that Gabi was concerned about bringing Jews closer to Torah Yiddishkeit, but not to any particular “brand” of Torah Yiddishkeit, including his own. His divrei Torah at the Shabbos tishen, and at his wonderful melava malkahs, naturally reflected his background, drawing from the Torah of the Lubavitcher Rebbes and other gedolei chassidus. But he was delighted when I shared with him divrei Torah from Litvishe sources on similar inyonim.

Indeed, I discovered as I spoke with him in learning on various occasions that Gabi was a talmid chochom of stature with a broad and deep knowledge of many areas of Torah. When we were talking one-on-one, his eyes would light up and his entire being would become animated with his “bren” for Torah, and I had the feeling that I was seeing the real Gabi Holtzberg, the penimiyus that defined and motivated all his other activities.

About three years ago, Chabad of Mumbai outgrew its original location on the top floor of that hotel and Gabi ambitiously decided to raise funds for, buy and refurbish a five-story building that would enable him to broaden the scope of his activities. I remember visiting him shortly after he moved into that building. It wasn’t completely finished yet, but the “ikkar” was there - a bais medrash and a dining hall for the guests. Gabi described with pride his plans to add a “hostel” so that his guests would no longer have to walk from the area hotels - and pay their steep rates - but could make his Chabad House their base of operations. That visit, I stayed at the Taj Mahal hotel, and davened and ate with Gabi.

My most recent visit was a few short months ago. The refurbishment was complete and Gabi welcomed me with pride to the hostel - clean and comfortable, not quite as high-end as the Taj, but infinitely more heimish. Friday night Gabi announced that we were going to the Sasson shul to daven - about a 25-minute walk through the smelly streets of Mumbai.

“Why?” I asked him. “You have a beautiful new bais medrash, we have a minyan here - and it’s 100 degrees outside, in the shade!”

“Because,” he answered me with a smile, “We have a minyan, but without us, they may not!”

Classic Gabi!

That visit, when it was my turn to speak, I said, “Rabbosai, my business has offices in Yerushalayim and in Mumbai, and I travel to both several times a year. Traveling to the kedushah of Yerushalayim is always a joy.

Traveling to the tumah of Mumbai would be intolerable, if not for this wonderful microcosm of Yerushalayim that Gabi has somehow managed to transplant right here.”

The loss of Gabi to Mumbai is incalculable. Gabi was one of a kind. His loss to Klal Yisroel is incalculable as well.

Yehi zicho boruch.

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