Commentary | Praying for friends killed in Mumbai

Hyde Park

Having lived in Mumbai for six months in 2007, the news that terrorists had committed a series of coordinated attacks in the city hit close to home.

As details of the attacks and the multiple hostage crises unfolded, I became distraught, as almost all the areas targeted were places I frequented on a near daily basis.

I would often take a train to the terminus in the morning, where gunmen indiscriminately threw grenades and fired AK-47s into the crowd during the attacks. I would then take a bus past Leopold’s Café, where terrorists opened fire on backpackers enjoying dinner. From there I would walk to my office, literally across the street from the Taj Mahal hotel, where dozens were held hostage. In fact, I often left my office to use the hotel’s luxurious, “Western-style” bathrooms. Seeing parts of the iconic building in flames was devastating, as I’m sure it has been for all Mumbaikers.

I wrote this just minutes after I heard the terrible news that five Israeli hostages were found dead inside the Chabad Jewish centre at Nariman house in Mumbai. Although the media hasn’t officially confirmed their identities by press time, it seems quite certain that they are Chabad Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, his wife Rivka, an Israeli couple, and another Israeli.

They were wonderful people. Gabi would get visibly excited to have so many guests for Shabbat, and you could tell it really made his week. He would have a grin on his face almost the entire meal, including during his Dvar Torah. He insisted everyone go around the table and say a few words to the group, giving guests four options: either delivering a Dvar Torah, relating an inspirational story, declaring to take on a mitzvah, or leading a song.

Gabi would start discussions to make a group of disconnected Jews feel like a family. It worked. That was Gabi.

Rivki was a certified sweetheart. She’d generally sit apart from Gabi, to spread herself out, and usually sat with the girls. She’d talk to the girls about the challenges of keeping kosher in India, and share exciting new finds at the market together. You could tell she was far from home, but she was tough and made the best of it. That was Rivki. Brave, fun-loving, and sweet.

I’m not sure if they were thrilled with their placement in Mumbai, but they certainly made a good go of it. They were only a few years older than me, in their late 20s, and despite being far from friends and family, they kept positive and built a beautiful bastion of Jewey goodness. They chose a life that demonstrated altruism and care.

It was at Gabi and Rivki’s where I met Joseph Telushkin, the famous Jewish author. It was at Gabi and Rivki’s where I randomly bumped into friends of friends from back home. It was to Gabi and Rivki’s where we brought our non-Jewish Indian friends who became curious in Judaism. It was at Gabi and Rivki’s where a girl I would later fall for first developed feelings for me, when I brought her some water while she lay sick on the sofa from Indian food poisoning. She was being nursed by Rivki.

Gabi and Rivki were real for me. We often hear about tragedies in distant, disconnected places, and feel frustratingly estranged from them. We want to connect, but cant; we feel as though in a different world. And mere numbers, names, and images don’t amass to much.

I know they would have been brave through the whole ordeal. Though unconfirmed, it is likely they would have been murdered right as Shabbat was coming in. I feel that this would have provided them with comfort, knowing that they departed this world in a time of peace. I also know the knowledge that their two-year- old son Moishe who managed to escape in the arms of his nanny would have provided them with great comfort in their final hours.

Chabad lost two soldiers Friday, emissaries and keepers of the Jewish people. Let us honour the work and lives of all victims and families affected by the attacks in our prayers, thoughts, and deeds. May all souls rest in peace, and may we see an end to violence in our time.

Benjamin Holzman graduated from McGill in the spring, and can be reached at benjiholzman@gmail.com.


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