Community mourns Mumbai victims

BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

“Turning Darkness into Light” was the theme of a solemn gathering of community leaders of all faiths to mourn the victims of the Mumbai massacre, which claimed the lives of Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife, Rivkah Holtzberg, directors of the Chabad Lubavitch Center in the large Indian city, to pay tribute to their lives, and to express determination to continue their work despite the horrific tragedy.

Over 250 people, a standing room audience, attended the program at the Jewish Federation Kopolow Building. The event was organized by Rabbi Yosef Landa, regional director of Chabad of St. Louis.

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Rabbi Levi Landa, director of programming of Chabad of Greater St. Louis, served as master of ceremonies for the program. He pointed out that Chabad operates 3,000 centers around the world and noted sadly, “there is no doubt that the Chabad Center was deliberately targeted by the terrorists.” Rabbi Levi Landa expressed deep admiration for the dedication and skills of Rabbi Gavriel and Rivkah Holtzberg, and vowed, “we will continue their work and the work of Chabad will continue everywhere with even more determination.”

Rabbi Hershey Novack, director of Chabad on Campus, which serves Jewish students at Washington U. and other area colleges, and who personally knew and had studied with Rabbi Holtzberg, led those in attendance in the recitation of Psalms 121 and 23.

First among the guest speakers was Charlie A. Dooley, St. Louis County Executive, who expressed his “deep personal condolences for the tragedy in Mumbai,” and his admiration for the “dedicated young rabbi and his wife who were in charge of the Chabad Center in that city.”

“Today, I hope we can refocus on responding to this tragedy with love, understanding and remembering those who gave their lives. This is a tragedy, but as I have said before, when we come together, from different backgrounds, different cultures, different economic standings, for one purpose, in remembrance, and understanding that those who gave their lives did not die in vain,” Dooley said.

Sheila Greenbaum, president of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, said the tragedy in Mumbai has brought a renewed focus on security.

“What brings us together today is in part our need to express our horror at terrorism, and its unacceptability under any circumstances. Because of the times in which we live, security has been a major focus for many Jewish organizations, because of terror attacks in Israel and on Jews elsewhere. Of course, there is a real concern about the targeting of specifically Jewish sites,” she said.

“An unfortunate fallout from the Mumbai tragedy is a threat to the exceptionally good Indian-Israeli relations. India, an emerging super-power, is a country with no historic anti-Semitism. And here at home, we may face heightened risk at a time of economic stress. Our community may need to be far more diligent about physical security,” Greenbaum said.

“Chabad has not been part of the secure community network,” she added. “Creating barriers is the antithesis of the Chabad effort. No Jew should ever be lost to the Jewish people. No Jew should ever be lonely. We all recognize and share the profound pain within the Chabad Lubavitch community and the loss of the inspired, caring, mission-driven young shluchim. Likewise, we take inspiration that immediately, other Chabad members volunteered to take the place of the victims. We convene with a sense of solidarity. The events in Mumbai were a tragedy for the Jewish people as a whole, and the world as a whole.”

Greenbaum’s observation was reinforced by the diversity of the audience. Not only were many Chabad rabbis and members present, but so were representatives of all streams and branches of Judaism, along with Christian, Muslim, Hindu and other faith groups who wanted to express their condolences and solidarity.

Batya Abramson-Goldstein, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, expressed appreciation to the Muslim and Hindu communities of St. Louis for their concern and support. She introduced Zubaida Ibrahim, member of the board of the Islamic Foundation of St. Louis, who read a statement by Muhammad Jamil, M.D., chairman of the Islamic Foundation, which said, “The Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis strongly condemns the recent act of terrorism in Mumbai, India, which caused loss of innocent lives and injuries. We exend our deepest sympathies towards the families of the victims, particularly to Christians and Jews. We are deeply saddened by the untimely deaths of Rabbi Gavriel and Rivkah Holtzberg, the beloved directors of Chabad Lubavitch of Mumbai, India. We denounce these despicable acts of horror; they do not reflect the teachings of Islam. We urge India and Pakistan to join hands to fight global terrorism.”

Also on the program was Dr. Vijaya Kumar Buddhiraju, a member of the Hindu community, who recalled the legacy of Mohandas Mahatma Gandhi, the founder of modern independent India and his commitment to non-violence and tolerance and welcoming of all faiths, ethnic groups and cultures. He denounced the terrorist attacks as a grave insult to Gandhi’s legacy and to the values for which India and its people stand.

A video titled Love is Love was shown, a brief documentary which showed Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and Rivkah Holtzberg from their childhood days, and their efforts to establish the Chabad facility in Mumbai. As a child, Gavriel Holtzberg was a biblical and Talmudic prodigy, having memorized 11 volumes of Talmud by the age of 11, and winning the International Bible Contest in Israel a short time later.

As a child, Rivkah was known both for her wisdom and intellect as well as her “feistyness.” The young couple is shown in the Chabad Nariman House, a six-story building which they purchased and renovated as their center. When the voice-over indicated that the young couple was killed just as the Sabbath arrived, there were many tears among those in the audience. Viewers were also inspired by the bravery of the Holtzbergs’ nanny who rescued their son Moshe, who just turned two years old, and who is now safe in Israel.

Neil Lazaroff spoke on behalf of his family and fellow volunteers in offering condolences and renewed commitment to the mission of Chabad.

The Chabad facility in University City is named in honor of his late father, Morris Lazaroff. Also on the program was this writer, who took note of the irony that the program took place on the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and how that attack mobilized America and its allies to defeat the forces of tyranny during World War II, and that the attack in Mumbai will cause us to redouble our solidarity not only with Chabad but with all Jews everywhere.

Other speakers included Chana Novack of Chabad on Campus and Chanala Rubenfeld of Chabad of Chesterfield.

The program concluded with remarks by Rabbi Yosef Landa, regional director of Chabad of Greater St. Louis, who thanked all of the speakers and those in attendance.

“We also thank the Jewish Federation of St. Louis for hosting the program in the Kopolow Building, and the many members of the Jewish and general communities for their solidarity and support. We will continue to inspirational work of Rabbi Gavriel and Rivkah Holtzberg with even greater determination.”

The event ended with the chanting of Kel Moleh Rachamim, the traditional Jewish prayer of mourning. Attendees lit candles in tribute to the victims and to show determination that those who were murdered in Mumbai will be remembered and will not have died in vain.