Mourning the victims of Mumbai
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Mourning the victims of Mumbai

'We were yeshiva students; Gabi was my friend'

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Attendees at Sunday’s service light candles in memory of the victims of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai. KEN HILFMAN

The memorial service held Sunday at Fair Lawn’s Bris Avrohom Chabad Center was particularly poignant. As a student, Rabbi Mendel Zaltzman – the center’s youth director and organizer of the event – had enjoyed a close personal relationship with Rabbi Gavriel Noach Holtzberg, slain last week in a terrorist attack in Mumbai together with his wife, Rivkah, at a Chabad House there.

“I am 31, and Rabbi Holtzberg was 29,” said Zaltzman, speaking with The Jewish Standard after the service, which included the lighting of memorial candles. “We studied together in a four-year program at Yeshiva Ohel Torah in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Our nickname for him was ‘Gabi.’

“As someone who had the privilege to have studied in yeshiva with Rabbi Holtzberg, and to have been a friend, I am stunned and shocked beyond words,” Zaltzman told the Standard.

“We met, at times, at the international convention at the Lubavitch Center, in Crown Heights,” Zaltzman said.

Two films were screened at the service, which drew some 200 people. One depicted the destruction of the Chabad House; the other portrayed the Lubavitch movement’s worldwide outreach program.

Recalling that he sat next to Holtzberg many times at the yeshiva, Zaltzman said, “Gabi was a good student.” He noted that his friend had served as an intern rabbi in the yeshiva’s summer training program in the Jewish communities of Thailand and China.

In the field, Zaltzman said, Holtzberg often had to be a “one-man show.”

“When the job demands it, that’ s when [the necessary skills] begin to flourish,” he said. “He knew what he had to do. He was a shochet and a mohel. He needed these skills in the Jewish community of Mumbai, as there was no one else to do anything. He had to do it all.”

“It’s not easy to import kosher meat,” said Zaltzman. “For Shabbos dinner, or a seder, they had chicken because he could prepare it himself. As a mohel, he could perform a bris. In that community, he was a ‘one-man show,’ literally.”

In most communities, Zaltzman noted, a rabbi doesn’t have to do all these tasks. He said that Holtzberg clearly had learned well at yeshiva, enabling him to “become successful on his own.”

At the service, Zaltzman said that “Rabbi Gavriel Noach and his wife, Rivkah, brought Judaism to a corner of the world where it was not found. They spread light, made people happy, did not judge, and had open hearts and minds [for] any and all people with whom they came in contact. This is what we need to … increase in our personal and communal lives.”

Zaltzman moved to Fair Lawn from Los Angeles when his father, Rabbi Rabbi Berel Zaltzman, became director of Bris Avrohom. It was then that he attended Yeshiva Ohel Torah.

Addressing those who came to mourn, Rabbi Benjamin Yudin, religious leader of Fair Lawn’s Cong. Shomrei Torah, said, “When Jews die for no other reason than that they are Jewish, they are called, ‘kedoshim,’ holy ones. Others associate us with being different…. If we didn’t keep our Shabbat, if we didn’t keep kosher, etc., we would not be singled out as targets. We must double our efforts so that this loss has not been for naught. If they died [because of] spreading Shabbat, then we must provide an even stronger Shabbat.”

During the service, Yudin greeted Ketan Patel and his father-in-law, Anil Lakhia, Indian residents of Fair Lawn.

“We decided to attend the memorial service because what happened is very sad,” said Patel. “It’s about time all communities should get together to fight terrorism.”

Meanwhile, memorials were scheduled in this area throughout the week.

On Tuesday, Dec. 2, the Chabad House at Rutgers University held a student-run memorial service.

A tribute and memorial program were scheduled for Wednesday night, Dec. 3, at the Bergen YJCC in Washington Township.

On Thursday, Dec. 4, the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown and area federations were to co-sponsor a statewide memorial at the JCC in West Orange. Newark’s Mayor Cory Booker was to be among the speakers.

Lubavitch on the Palisades in Tenafly plans to dedicate a Torah in memory of the Holtzbergs on Sunday.

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