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God’s Work

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The Chabad House on Hormusji Street.  

Lubavitchers do not proselytize, certainly not to Gentiles; they model a form of Jewish spirituality—through scholarship, prayer, and good deeds—that they hope will challenge other Jews to do the same. But in order to reach Jews, they must first find Jews to reach. The Chabad leadership continually studies patterns of Jewish settlement and travel for places to expand. As a result, the movement now has a presence in 72 countries, with more than 4,000 couples or families serving as shluchim worldwide.

But until recently Chabad had sent only the occasional roving rabbi to India, where about 5,000 Jews remained, mostly around Mumbai, after waves of settlement going back 2,000 years. Faith was burning out, with leaderless synagogues forced to pay poor Jews in order to corral the required minyan. Addressing these local needs was enough of a reason to consider sending shluchim. But Chabad also had its eyes on foreign Jews, who, since the Indian financial “miracle” of the nineties, were visiting in greater numbers. Some were businessmen. Some were Israelis freshly liberated from army service, on their way to nonmilitary pleasures in Goa. Others were young Americans on the first leg of spiritual journeys, often pursued by worried parents.

Rabbi Kantor and his superiors decide they have found the right couple to serve such people. They know it will be a difficult job—which, in a way, for Gabi if not for Rivki, makes it even more attractive.

Still, Frieda Holtzberg is worried. Her family escaped the Nazis in Hungary—she named Gabi for a neighbor’s child killed in the Holocaust—so she has good cause to doubt the world’s hospitality. She tells her husband to change their son’s mind. It’s the Third World: Think how uncomfortable it will be for them. Think of the children, so far away. For by now Rivki has given birth to a son, Menachem Mendel, named after the Rebbe.

But Nachman doesn’t want to intervene. “I loved the idea he could be the big guy in India,” he says. Anyway, Gabi hasn’t asked their permission.

Moshe is their “miracle” child, their angel. When someone says that he and Rivki seem like best friends, Rivki says yes, my only friend.

Just before Hanukkah 2003, Gabi and Rivki arrive in Mumbai with little in tow but his knives and her wigs and Menachem Mendel, not yet 1. They set up shop in a rented room at the three-star Shelley’s Hotel on the water in the main tourist area: not an ideal situation, with no kitchen, little space, and a highly disagreeable owner. Still, they get to work, offering Torah study, officiating at bar mitzvahs and weddings, serving meals, and, because there is no kosher meat to be had—and no beef, of course; it’s India—slaughtering hundreds of chickens a week.

Life isn’t easy, and visitors, whether they come for dinner or a three-night stay, are not the same as friends. But together the Holtzbergs form a defense against the world, even as they throw themselves into it. They are each other’s lifeboats. “There is no Gabi without Rivki and no Rivki without Gabi” is how her mother puts it—and even though they behave modestly in public, as Orthodox standards require, it’s apparent to everyone who meets them that they are in love. “To say they are enamored,” Rabbi Kantor says, “would be an understatement.” Indeed, Rivki looks forward to teaching women visitors about the beauty of marital intimacy in Judaism, suggesting the zeal of one who experiences it. Like many new husbands, Gabi has a small smile playing on his face all the time, though maybe that’s also because he is finally getting to be what he always meant to be. He especially enjoys lighting a 25-foot Hanukkah menorah at the Gateway of India, where the whole world, it seems, can see it.

Rivki flies frequently to Israel. On one trip back, in 2004, she meets Chani Lifshitz in the airport. A Chabad emissary in Kathmandu, Chani, along with her husband, is famous for making the largest Seder in the world, serving 2,000 people in the heights of Nepal. In the airport, she and Rivki recognize each other as fellow shluchim “by the face,” Chani says. They become friends “like that.”

Every six months or so, they meet in Bangkok for three days of shopping. Rivki dresses “simple but classic”: T-shirts, slim skirts, cute, trendy glasses, a “big, big smile and a small, small necklace.” When you give her a compliment, “she doesn’t say no—she doesn’t fight with herself.” In between, they communicate electronically. Chani often leaves her Instant Messenger open, waiting for a ping. They discuss the decoration of their premises, share ideas for new programs and recipes. (Rivki is teaching herself to make soy milk from scratch.) They commiserate about the difficulty of their work, but not too much. Chani, with three children and another on the way, talks of their progress. Rivki doesn’t.

Chani knows why, but few others do. Menachem Mendel is dying in a hospital in Israel.


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