June 06, 2023   10:17am

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Sometimes knowing the behind-the-scene story makes a far-away tragedy become even more real.  Here’s an update to the letter written to a friend in London from Jennifer Gammell.  Her husband Simon is in charge of the British Council in India based in Mumbai … To the letter below posted last Sunday, here’s an update …

Under huge pressure, they have released the Israeli bodies without a post mortem and a plane should be taking them back to Israel as I write this.

This morning there was a service at the Knesset Eliyahu, the main synagogue Rabbi Holtzberg attended.
It was pretty full with members of the various jewish communities here (very few Jews in Bombay but several communities) and a few members of other diplomatic missions. A good attendance.
At the end of the shul service the Israeli Ambassador from Delhi came in with local consular staff, various large Chabad Rabbis from I don’t know where, and then Rivka’s family arrived with Moishe in the arms of a male maid. I imagine Sandra was packing as they are supposed to fly out this afternoon.

They all sat on the bima, several shortish speeches, her father, also a Rabbi, broke down several times whilst he was trying to say some prayers, and then the baby started calling for his mother. Ima Ima Ima, crying out and then wailing Ima Ima Ima until he was red in the face.

I cannot describe to you how heartwrenching it was, almost to the point of being unbearable. Everyone was crying, it was a moment we will never forget. They did eventually take him outside where he calmed down. He must have recognised the shul and made the association with his mother.

The synagogue was swarming with photographers, many Israeli, but what a morbid photo op. Outside was crawling with security and police, streets blocked, onlookers gaping.

I am pleased I went but I was very relieved to leave. We had to drive past the hotels to get home and it was not a sight for sore eyes. Huge panes of broken glass everywhere, dark interiors, few people, like a ghost town.

WOW. The intensity is seriously exhausting and I have been unable to do anything for the rest of the day until a short while ago I tackled 4 boxes which will please the diplomat when he comes home eventually. Long days, unseasonably grey skies, even the parrots seem to have taken a hike.

It will get better soon, time does heal. For now the rawness is real.

And the initial letter written …

“We are shattered by the tragic events of the past few days.

The Taj is still burning, the British Council library is filled with stranded traumatized Brits, and then there is Nariman House, the Chabad House which was stormed by Indian forces today where they found 5 dead hostages, including those of Rabbi Gabi Holtzberg and his wife Rivki. Theirs is a huge loss to the world, and more specifically to many visitors to Mumbai.

I have known Rabbi Holtzberg and his wife Rivka ever since I moved to Mumbai 2 and a half years ago. I arrived the week of Pesach 2006, found them on the internet and then spent both seders with them in their forecourt with up to 60 other visitors and had the memorable pleasure of enjoying truly joyous seders, helped no doubt by the consumption of 5 full cups of ‘kosher grape juice’ which was actually fortified kosher wine labelled ‘juice’ to avoid import duty, and watched by local Indians hanging over the gates staring at this strange bunch of people singing songs in a foreign language with great gusto.

They were an exceptional couple. He was just 30, a very young, unassuming man, ever dedicated to helping people around him. He was non-interfering and never preaching religion, nor did he ever belittle any other religion. He was an official emmisary of the Jewish Chabad movement and his only aim has been to guide Jews towards G-d and inculcate spirituality — he spent a lot of time praying. She was a loving wife, 28 yrs old, deeply spiritual, wholly supportive of the their mission in life. Always smiling, always welcoming and a good cook. She and Sandra served a delicious kosher meat dinner every night of the week at 8pm to an unknown quantity of visitors, ranging from Israeli travellers, Belgian diamond dealers, American businessman, French tourists… anything from 10 to 30 on a weeknight and shabbat was always overflowing with visitors.

A visit to chabad is free, no charge, no expectation, just turn up and find yourself welcomed into their home. We found a way to give back by occasionally sending our Muslim driver to the airport to meet visitors who had come in with suitcases filled with Kosher goods for the Holtzbergs and deliver them to Chabad House, suitcases so heavy that 2 people had to carry them in along a cobbled lane. Our driver was forever enriched by this endeavour.

Few know of the personal hardships they suffered. Rabbi Holtzberg and Rivka’s first-born child, a son, was born with a terminal blood condition (Tay-Sachs) that claimed his life. After that, their second son was also born with the same disease — he cannot be more than 3-and-a-half years old and is currently in hospital back in Israel. They visited him only in September and when they came back they reported that all hope of his surviving is lost. Then came Moishe (the Holtzbergs’s youngest son), their beloved child who turns 2 tomorrow/today — he was miraculously freed by Sandra, his nanny/cook who had barricaded herself into a closet, came out when she heard him crying and managed to escape from the building on Thursday).

I last spoke to Gabi on Thursday last week to ask him if there was a Chabad for Natasha who is in Darjeeling. It is the first time I had spoken to him in 2 months and his response to hearing my voice was so warm and welcoming, genuinely interested in my welfare, and and we agreed that now I was back in Mumbai for some time, I would stop being a stranger and would come for shabbat dinner this week i.e. tonight. Natasha would insist that we went to Chabad every time she visited Bombay because she found them so warm and welcoming, and I am angry that my daughter, alone up in the Himalayas, should be so saddened by grief created by such evil.

As soon as we heard on Wednesday night that terrorists had stormed the Chabad House, we had this horrible sensation this invasion was not a random one. How right we were. To think of them as dead is unbearable, and they will live on in our memories as a vital vivacious ouple, young enough to be my children, with an outreach capacity far ahead of their youth.

In Bombay, we live in harmony — and this is devastating for this city. For this country. And for the world. Such planned evil, cowardice and bestiality, makes it a very unsafe place.

Thank you all for thinking of us with your calls, your messages. All we can ask is for you to pick up on the words of another Chabad rabbi on CNN, a man who grew up and studied with Gabi, whose advice was to counter evil with good deeds and to celebrate Moshe’s 2nd birthday today with an act of kindness to another.

in sadness and with love

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