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God’s Work

Newlyweds Gabi and Rivki Holtzberg heeded the Rebbe’s call to bring the joy of their faith to every part of the world. But the world did not respond in kind.


Little Moshe has passed through the time of danger. He is healthy and clever, and if he’s sometimes clingy, that’s fine with Rivki. Staying busy with him, with all her work, keeps difficult thoughts at bay. Such as: Why are she and Gabi here, amid the stench and chaos and otherness of Mumbai? They could have been in Brooklyn or Israel instead, with family and comforts nearby to ease their sadness.

But why think about what can’t be helped? They are here because that’s what the Rebbe inspired them to do. And look at the blessings their sacrifice has brought them, just as he said it would: Moshe, their miracle, and now another child on the way. God willing, the family will grow and bring honor to their mission.

Sixth of eleven, the middlest of middle children, Rivka Rosenberg, born in 1980, grows up in Afula, Israel, in a Lubavitcher home: a smiler, a laugher, knowing how to fit in yet managing to be heard. Everyone calls her Rivki. “Not meek,” a friend says. “Not recessive. Full of life. Always looking to connect. That’s the secret.” The friend pauses. “And that’s the problem.”

The peninsula of Mumbai juts into the Arabian Sea, a beckoning finger. It is the Western face of India: a short flight from any trouble spot you can name, yet not particularly troubled itself, except by extremes of poverty and wealth. It is where others, including filmmakers, come to make a point. They find Bollywood stars and goats in the street, luxury retail and beggars like flies, and, if they are Jewish, a Chabad House for kosher food and a sense of identity in a city where it is easy to get lost. Located almost invisibly in the last crook of the last joint of the beckoning finger, on a narrow, congested alley in a neighborhood called Colaba, the house waits for those who know about it and can find their way from their hostel or five-star hotel near the Gateway of India monument, welcoming all from the sea.

Gavriel Noach Holtzberg shows up mid-fall at Oholei Torah, a Lubavitcher yeshiva in Crown Heights. He is 9, not as well off as some of the boys, already a scholar in Yiddish and Hebrew but—having just moved from Israel with his parents and six siblings—almost completely lacking in English. Nevertheless, within a year, he has emerged at the top of his class, in not just scholarship but influence. If he can’t afford the right sneakers, plays no sports, he still commands respect from the boys; in the schoolyard they speak Yiddish with him, even after he learns to speak English with them.

His family knows from the start that something is different about Gabi. At 3, he is already punctilious in his observance of Jewish law, washing his hands the second he gets up, making sure everyone says the central prayer of Judaism, the Shema. His brothers and sisters are astounded by this, but his father, Nachman, a rabbi and ritual slaughterer, or shochet, is not. Rabbi Holtzberg’s family lived for eight generations in Safed, Israel, a center of mystical Judaism as far back as the sixteenth century. His own father “davened like he eats”—prayed naturally, as a form of sustenance. Gabi, too, has the quality of relentless piety. At 17, he walks to Teaneck, New Jersey, and back, six hours, to share a Torah thought at a synagogue there. His feet are covered with blisters.

Even earlier, he has a mission. “He told me, at maybe 10 or 11, ‘I want to sharpen the knives,’ ” says Nachman. A shochet’s knives are prized tools, requiring perfect care to prevent animals from feeling pain. “I said he was too young: He didn’t know how. He said, ‘I don’t care,’ and took a knife and sharpened it. He did a good job. But good wasn’t enough for him. It had to be ‘beautiful good.’ ”

Rebbe is the Yiddish for rabbi—in the Orthodox tradition, a learned male who receives a smicha, or certification, upon finishing his religious studies, regardless of whether he goes on to lead a congregation or live a relatively ordinary life. There are thousands of rabbis, many without portfolio. Those affiliated with Lubavitcher Judaism—so named because from 1813 until 1940 the movement was centered in the Russian town of Lubavitch—are easily met in Crown Heights, often wearing black hats and bushy beards, with their wives in wigs and their boys sporting side-locks like unwound ribbons.

But the Rebbe (or “the Grand Rebbe” or “the Lubavitcher Rebbe”) has in recent history meant only one man: Menachem Schneerson. Descended from the founders of Hasidism in the 1600s, he led the Lubavitchers from 1950 until his death, in 1994. During his tenure, he turned the movement, never a monkish sect, further outward, emphasizing practical acts of spirituality and engagement with the world, as befits a man who studied at the Sorbonne and, upon escaping from Europe, became an electrical engineer in the U.S. Navy.


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