Memories and Lessons From Mumbai

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04 Dec 2008

I returned from Mumbai only a few days before terrorists attacked the very hotel where I had been staying, as well as the Chabad House where I had eaten many meals. Since learning of my narrow escape, my mind has been trying – without success – to make sense of things.

Why was I spared while others were killed or wounded. Was it random chance or ‘Hashgacha Pratit’ (a sort of Divine guidance/protection)? If the former, how can I continue to exist in a terrifying world where my fate is the result of countless random influences? And if the latter, how can I accept the idea of ‘Hashgacha Pratit’ for myself when many other, more deserving, people were apparently denied divine guidance/protection?

I’ve decided that it would be madness to try to delve into such unknowable things, and instead have chosen to look through my vivid memories of Mumbai for lessons that I can take with me through life.

Hillel said, “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.” He was saying that if one finds him/herself in a place where there is nobody else do a difficult but necessary thing, it is incumbent upon us to try to do so.

We are also told that one of the reasons a Chupah (wedding canopy) is open on all four sides is so it will resemble Abraham’s tent, which had doors that opened to the four directions of the compass. This was to enable Abraham to welcome guests regardless of the direction from which they might arrive.

Each time I went to Mumbai on business, I made it a point to go to the Mumbai Chabad House (Nariman House) to eat at least a few meals with Rabbi Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg (HY”D). It wasn’t that I lacked for food (I usually travel with a suitcase full of non-perishable kosher food), but rather that in a strange place, a Jew naturally yearns for the company of other Jews.

I used to call Rabbi Holtzberg ‘Rav Gabi’. It was an acknowledgement of his Smicha and his standing in the community… but also a nod to the easy informality he encouraged in all his guests. But Rivka, who was equally worthy of a title of respect, wrinkled her nose when I called her ‘Rebbetzin’ during our first meeting, and insisted I call her Rivky.

Rav Gabi and Rivky created a warm, welcoming Jewish home in a place where a once-vibrant Indian Jewish community was little more than a memory. They did so just on the off chance that a local or traveling Jew might want a place to eat a kosher meal, or to find a safe place to feel a little bit Jewish in a strange land.

Both of these special people were born and brought up in Israel, so they were ideally suited to understand (literally and culturally) the countless Israeli backpackers and business people who frequent the sub-continent. But because Rav Gabi had moved to the U.S. as a pre-teen, so he also spoke a perfect, unaccented English (if one can call the distinctive patois of Crown Heights, ‘unaccented’). The result was that conversations in their crowded home were a pleasant jumble of mixed languages where everyone was able to express themselves … and nobody felt misunderstood.

I always tried to call or email ahead to let Rav Gabi and Rivky know when I would be in India, but they invariably told me it wasn’t necessary since anywhere from 30 – 50 people always showed up for meals, and all were welcome… and always well fed.

But the Holtzberg’s home was far more than a kosher soup kitchen and flophouse for wayward Jews. It was a place were one could go to nourish a hungry soul… often without even realizing that such a hunger existed. And this is one of the most striking aspects of the hospitality and spiritual nourishment to which the Holtzbergs had dedicated their lives in Mumbai.

There is truly something amazing about how Jews of every stripe begin longing for contact with other Jews when they are in a foreign culture. The more foreign the culture… the stronger the desire to connect with something Jewish seems to be.

I always marveled at how Jews who arrived at Nariman House from every possible physical and spiritual direction were warmly welcomed, and how everyone was made to feel comfortable and secure. Each and every person was accepted for who he/she was… with everyone feeling as though he / she were the guest of honor.

I was always especially impressed by the way Rivky bonded with the young post-army Israeli girls who showed up at the Chabad House. Here she was with her modest (but very hip) clothing and wig, huddled head to head on the couch with a bunch of girls sporting multiple piercings, dreadlocks and body art… and yet there was absolutely no sense of distance or disparity. Sitting there, they were on exactly the same level… sharing the powerful commonality of being holy Jewish Women.

Young men and women who came from secular families and who probably never thought twice about going to a dance club on a Friday night in Tel Aviv, were somehow drawn to hear Kiddush at Mumbai’s Nariman House, and to enjoy a traditional Shabbat meal with Rav Gabi and Rivky when in India.

And most importantly, every guest at the Holtzberg’s table left with the odd (but special) feeling that we had somehow done our hosts an incredible favor by coming!

I’ve shared all this because I don’t know why this precious couple is no longer alive… or why I should be zocheh to continuing living. It makes my head hurt and my heart ache to contemplate such things, so I have nowhere else but to my memories to turn for answers.

When someone dies, we Jews have no shortage of handy sayings: “Blessed is the true judge”, we say. But can I really believe such people were judged and found wanting? We say, “May their memory be a blessing”. Of course their memory is a blessing… but I gained so much from my short association with these incredible people that such a passive and ephemeral wish seems somehow unworthy.

So I’ve decided not to indulge in the usual sayings and platitudes.

Instead I’ve decided to try to recognize the dark and empty places in the world through which I travel… and to do my best to fill them with whatever light and goodness I possess. And I’ve resolved to try to open the doors of my home to all directions from which guests might arrive.

In so doing, I hope to truly make their memory a blessing, and to emulate – at least in some small way – a few of the lessons and attributes of Abraham and Hillel that Rabbi Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg (HY”D) so effortlessly embodied during their too-short stay among us.

David Bogner, formerly of Fairfield, CT, lives in Efrat with his wife Zahava (nee Cheryl Pomeranz), and their children Ariella, Gilad and Yonah. Since moving to Israel in 2003 David has been working in Israel’s defense industry on International Marketing and Business Development. In his free time David keeps a blog ( and is an amateur beekeeper.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.