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God’s Work

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The destruction inside the Chabad House.  

Babies with Tay-Sachs, a genetic disease found among Eastern European Jews, seem normal at birth. Only after several months do symptoms appear: motor weakness, sensitivity to noise, and a telltale cherry-red spot on the retina. By 10 months, seizures have usually begun; soon after that come blindness, deafness, and brain atrophy. The disease is without exception fatal, usually by age 4.

Gabi and Rivki probably knew they were carriers, and certainly do by the time a second son, Dov Ber, is born with Tay-Sachs in 2004. He too is sent, after a while, to an Israeli hospital. This is why Rivki sometimes excuses herself from guests who wonder at the sight of an apparently childless young Lubavitcher woman: She goes to another room to cry. (“Why should I make them feel badly?”) It’s also why she flies home so often. After much painful discussion and rabbinic consultation—Rabbi Kantor says that Chabad made the decision that the Holtzbergs would not be easily replaced—they choose to stay in Mumbai and visit Israel as often as necessary. In any case, the visits are more for Rivki than the babies: Eventually, they do not seem to sense her presence even when she’s there. If she feels the same about God, she doesn’t let on.

Even after they move to a bigger space within Shelley’s Hotel, the situation is untenable. More and more people are seeking their services. Meals are difficult. Also, Shelley’s is being turned into a Planet Hollywood.

With the help of a large donation from investment banker George Rohr, Gabi is able to procure, for $1.5 million, a rundown five-story concrete office building on an alley called Hormusji Street. He has big plans for it: a kitchen, dining room, and restaurant on the first floor; a library, a synagogue, and an Internet lounge on the second; guest rooms on the third and fourth; their own apartment on the fifth. On the ground level, which has a wide blue gate but no walls, a guard will sit at a table in front of the elevator and stairs. On the roof, they will hold parties and special events on a terrace designed to catch the breeze and the view of the sea.

By the time the building is dedicated as India’s first permanent Chabad House, in 2006, Menachem Mendel has died at age 2 and Dov Ber is dying. Streams of pain wash over Rivki daily, Chani says. And—both terror and joy—she is pregnant again.

Thanks to the Chabad website and Google, there are now 20 to 30 businessmen, backpackers, and students arriving for 8 p.m. dinner each night; as many as 70 come on Shabbat. Rivki doesn’t attend to them alone: She has hired a fortyish Mumbaikar named Sandra Samuel to help clean and a young man from Assam named Zakir Hussain to help cook. Visitors who stay overnight notice that the guest rooms are outfitted with new toothbrushes, bottles of shampoo, Israeli hand soap: amenities of a nice hotel. But the Holtzbergs’ apartment is dilapidated and bare, little more than a bed and bookshelf. Paint is peeling from the walls. Only the empty blue child’s room is decorated, with the aleph-bet, pictures of ducks, and a portrait of the Rebbe.

To a Chabad crew filming them, Rivki hoarsely says of the work, “It’s fun.” Certainly it is for Gabi, who is ambitious for his faith and, like ambitious men everywhere, seeks success where it will stand out best. Besides running the Chabad, he is serving all of Mumbai’s synagogues and supervising kashruth for the region. He is “impressed by his own genius,” one guest observes. He leads each new roomful of Jews in loud renditions of all the old songs, even though he can’t carry a tune. “Adon Olam,” again? another guest thinks. When his sermons go on, or when people do not pay adequate attention to a video of the Rebbe he sometimes shows, he is peremptory. “If the girls don’t want to watch this, they can leave the room,” he says. The boy who insisted on sharpening knives until they are “beautiful good” is not deterred by trivialities. When terrorists attack Ahmedabad, some 300 miles north, and a visitor asks if Gabi is worried, he says, “I don’t care, they can come, be my guest, I’m not leaving.”

The talk one night turns to meditation. Gabi insists there is something parallel in Judaism: It’s called self-control. “If there are two apples in a bowl, personally I would always take the bad apple,” he says. “That’s my way of submitting.”


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