Thursday, July 18, 2019 -
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Time of mourning and uncertainty, Denver mourns Mumbai victims

Rabbi Yisroel H. Engel, head of Lubavitch in ColoradoRabbi Yossi Serebryanski, fighting a cold gust of wind that threatens to displace his black hat, is the first to arrive at the empty parking lot outside BMH-BJ Sunday.

Aware that the combination of Broncos football and inclement weather might prevent a large turnout at the memorial service, Rabbi Serebryanski’s spirits still soar.

“I am so overwhelmed that Denver’s Jewish community is doing this for the Chabad community,” he says. “We are just so thankful.”

Chabad emissaries Rabbi Gavriel and Rivkah Holtzberg were murdered at the Chabad Center in Mumbai, India, during terrorists’ three-day siege of the city, which began Nov. 26.

Four Jews visiting the center also were killed.

The worldwide Chabad-Lubavitch movement reacted to the deaths of Rabbi and Mrs. Holtzberg with the intimate pain usually reserved for close family members.

On Sunday, hundreds of Denver Jews representing all affiliations would turn off the football game, brave the snow and embrace this family as their own.

As people filter into the sanctuary, ushers politely request women and men to sit on opposite sides, according to Orthodox tradition.

A few voices object in whispers, but the vast majority consents.

“We’re here to show our respects, not to make religious commentary,” says Julie Kiner, who moved to Denver two months ago.

Sitting in the front row on the men’s side are Rabbi Selwyn Franklin of BMH-BJ, Rabbi Joshua Hess of DAT, Rabbi Richard Rheins of Temple Sinai, Brian Friedman, chair of the Allied Jewish Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Council; Rabbi Jeffrey Kaye of Rose Medical Center and Chabad Rabbis Yisroel Engel and Yisroel Popack.

Also visible in the crowd are Chabad Rabbis Yaakov Borenstein and Yisroel Wilhelm, Kollel Rabbis Yehuda Amsel and Yechiel Erlanger, IJN Executive Editor Rabbi Hillel Goldberg and ADL Director Bruce DeBoskey.

Newly elected State Sen. Joyce Foster joins rebbetzins ranging from Reform to Chabad in the front row of the women’s side.

Men sporting caps and yarmulkes sit next to those with no head coverings. Women are attired in nice pants, skirts and jeans.

Conversations mingle, then fade into silence.

Intermittent memories of past gatherings held in this very place cast their shadow: a terrorist attack in Israel; the loss of a beloved community leader; a fallen Israeli astronaut; Sept. 11.

Chabad has been a quiet presence at these moments of communal mourning.

Today, however, Chabad is front and center.

About 10 minutes after the service was scheduled to start, a general hush circulates as Rabbi Franklin approaches the bimah.

He implores the leaders of the world to shout, “Dayenu! Enough! Enough of the senseless murder and killing. It is time to end the murder and terror that strikes at the very center of our people.

“Let us endeavor to preserve the world, not see the demise of so many innocent victims.”

Denver Jews, he says, are particularly aware that the Chabad movement has lost a young rabbi and his wife “who were dedicated and committed not only to the Jews but all people in need –– drug addicts, the poverty stricken –– in a nation that has known so much suffering.”

Rabbi Yisroel Engel, the head of Chabad in Colorado and the main speaker, addresses the sanctuary with sorrowful eyes and unbowed determination.

“Today we are pained, we are hurt and we are shocked,” he begins. “The wounds are fresh. The tragedy is unspeakable, the loss unthinkable. How do we fathom these murderous attacks?”

He can barely talk about Moshe Holtzberg, the couple’s two-year-old son who escaped probable death when his nanny smuggled him out of the Chabad Center.

“Moshe celebrated his second birthday yesterday, on Shabbos, without the loving embrace of his father and mother.”

Rabbi Engel says that someone once asked the Holtzbergs whether they were afraid of the potential dangers of living in such an isolated Jewish community.

Rabbi Holtzberg responded, “Are there not Jews here who need our help?”

“They could have stayed in New York or Israel,” Rabbi Engel says , “but they made a decision to go to Mumbai so they could serve klal Yisroel

The Holtzbergs uprooted themselves and moved thousands of miles away to fulfill the principal mission of a Chabad emissary: “to serve the Jewish community in whatever capacity is necessary,” he says.

“If it takes a shul, it’s a shul. If it’s a Talmud Torah for children, it’s a Talmud Torah.”

Rabbi Holtzberg made the long journey to a remote island and ritually slaughtered 300 chickens every two weeks to provide the Jews of India with kosher food. He also served as a mohel.

“We won’t understand why this happened,” Rabbi Engel says. “This is beyond our scope. It is in G-d’s hands; G-d’s wisdom.

“But our question for today, and the message we want to share, is where do we go from here?”

The day before the memorial service — just days after the Holtzbergs were killed — a Chabad emissary gave a Shabbat meal to 43 Israeli businessmen in Mumbai.

“We are not intimidated,” Rabbi Engel says. “If we leave, the terrorists have won. If we stay but don’t continue the work as we did before, they have won.

“We are going to redouble our efforts — continue with more inspiration, more vigor, more programs.”

To emphasize his point, Rabbi Engel says that an Israeli couple has already offered to go to Mumbai and serve as Chabad emissaries in the Holtzbergs’ stead.

“They will pick up the smoldering ashes of terrorism and evil and rebuild in a bigger way so that now there will be more voices singing around the Shabbos table. There will be more children who kiss the Torah; more students who will learn.”

The terrorists came armed with rifles and grenades, he says.

“We come armed with Shabbos candles to illuminate the darkness.

“We can transform the world — a world riddled with darkness — into a world permeated with holiness and light and goodness and kindness. We can continue the work.”

He says that Mumbai’s Jewish community resonated with the core Chabad concept of achdus, or unity.

“So often we see divisiveness, labels, distinctions. Where else but in India, around a table in the Holtzbergs’ home, sat chasidic rabbis, students who are learning, people from all over the world and all walks of life? There was no divisiveness there, only unity.

“This is a legacy for you, and me,” Rabbi Engel stresses to his rapt listeners. “Who is going to be a father to little Moshele? Who is going to be a mother to little Moshele?

“If not you, then me. If not now, when?”

Every Jew, regardless of his or her level of observance, has “the ability and the responsibility of continuing the flame of work that the Holtzbergs started. You can do it right now, starting today.

“Invite another Jew to your Shabbos table. Encourage another woman to light the Shabbos candles. Make that phone call to your brother, your sister, your grandmother.”

Rabbi Avraham Mintz recalls his close friend Gabi Holtzberg, whom he met in elementary school in Crown Heights, NY.Rabbi Engel then acknowledges — by name — every Chabad emissary serving in the state of Colorado. From Aurora to Highlands Ranch, Fort Collins to Colorado Springs, Boulder to Longmont and all the cities and suburbs in between, the roll call rings out from the bimah.

Rabbi Engel says that after the slaughter in Mumbai, Jews dropped into Chabad houses throughout Colorado.

“People came just to say hello, to give a hug, to say, ‘We’re with you. We’re together.’

“You know, sometimes it’s a little lonely,” Rabbi Engel says of being a Chabad rabbi. “You have no idea how much it means when you say, ‘I care.’

“So let’s shed tears together –– and then let us dance together.”

Brian Friedman, chair of the JCRC and the federation’s Israel, National and Overseas board, considers the great strides India has made in the last 20 years –– and the Jews’ innate relationship to that progress.

“Whenever there’s an intersection in history like we’ve just witnessed — a change, a new movement toward dynamism — isn’t it astonishing how often we find the Jewish people there?” he asks.

“Why is this? How is it we can see, we can feel, we know, when a change is happening –– and we want to be there”

Friedman attributes this collective eagerness to participate in global progress to the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, or repairing the world.

“It is our philosophy of tikkun olam that inspires us to help rebuild the world, no matter how secular or religious we are,” he says. “Inside of us, in our cultural DNA, is that vision to build and rebuild those broken vessels and create something better.”

And in periods of immense growth, Chabad reminds Jews of their roots.

“When India embarked on a new course 20 years ago, the Jews took the opportunity to intersect with history, as we always do,” Friedman says.

“We visit the culture and hope to learn from that culture — and no organization understands this better than Chabad. Chabad is always there. They know the Jewish people will be at that intersection.

“When we feel this need to reach out to more dynamic parts of the world, isn’t it amazing that we want at that very moment to seek out our own roots?”

The Chabad house in Mumbai, he says, provided that crucial ‘touchstone of home.”

Rabbi Serebryanski twice leads the recitation of psalms.

Dan Sundaresan, former committee chair of Denver’s sister city in Chennai (previously known as Madras), India, and representative of the Indian community for the program, is unable to appear due to the snow.

The federation’s Janet Sherman gives a device that transmits Sundaresan’s live remarks to Rabbi Franklin, who holds it close to the microphone.

Sundaresan mourns for the Holtzbergs and the hundreds of men, women and children who perished in Mumbai.

“The terrorists will not have the last word,” he concludes.

Rows of people nod in tacit agreement.

Rabbi Avraham Mintz of South Metro Denver met Gabi Holtzberg in Crown Heights when they were nine. They went all through school and yeshiva together.

He recalls that when the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson instructed his followers to go out and share the Chanukah spirit with other Jews, Gabi wanted to be part of it.

“We were too young and couldn’t participate,” Rabbi Mintz explains.

But Gabi found a way.

He convinced one of his cousins to drive them around in a station wagon “to bring the light of Torah to everyone,” Rabbi Mintz says.

Last year, the two friends reunited for what would be the final time at the international Chabad convention in New York.

“He was so proud of his new building (the Chabad center that was ultimately gutted by terrorists),” Rabbi Mintz says. “He said they were caring for 50, 60, 70 people every day.”

Rabbi Mintz starts to say something.

“Gabi . . . ”

He falters.

According to initial reports from ZAKA, the Orthodox Israeli organization that collects all physical remains of the dead for burial, Mrs. Holtzberg was murdered first.

Rabbi Mintz believes his friend tried to protect Rivkah’s dignity, even in death.

“Gabi covered her in a tallit

After Cantor Joel Lichterman recites the E-l Molei Rachamim, people pause to collect their emotions.

Several men stop and hug Rabbi Engel, who is trying to make his way through the sanctuary.

Women offer him soft words of comfort.

“I want to speak about happiness,” Rabbi Engel tells the IJN. “This has been very painful, but it’s also encouraging to see all this sensitivity and support.

“The unity I sense . . . ”

He turns to accept yet another embrace.

“We are all one,” he finishes.

His moist eyes sparkle.

“We are all one.”

Andrea Jacobs

IJN Senior Writer |

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