Brandeis and India: Student Voices
Brandeis students and alumni are intimately involved in reconstruction and reflection efforts in Mumbai. Here are a few of their stories.
I landed in Mumbai on the 19th of December. Unsurprisingly, the city was as warm and exciting as ever. The scars of 26/11 were almost invisible and anxiety – if at all present – was hardly palpable. Much has been said about Mumbai’s resilience which takes centre stage in the aftermath of every such attack. The bitter truth is that this resilience is nothing more than euphemism for apathy.
I met several officials of the Mumbai Police in order to gauge their sentiment and to offer monetary assistance to the families of their deceased colleagues on behalf of Brandeis. While they were baffled to learn about Brandeis’ response, they politely declined the offer as the central and state governments and the local business community has offered adequate support. Their bewilderment was a strange combination of joy and irony. They were delighted to learn that a community a few thousand miles away from where they are had responded in the manner that we have. A sense of incongruity also prevails as they wonder why they are cared for only post-martyrdom.
I also met Rabbi Goldberg of the Chabad Lubavitch movement. Rabbi Goldberg has replaced Rabbi Holtzberg and is leading the reconstruction efforts. He and his colleagues were delighted to learn about Brandeis’ initiative and requested me to convey their gratitude to the community. They were given a banner which contained messages of peace inscribed by members of the Brandeis community. Revive Mumbai will be contacting the Chabad headquarters in New York, via Rabbi Chein, in order to design a program which will allow Brandeis students to travel to India this summer in order to assist with the reconstruction efforts.
Finally, I met with officials of the American Center, a subsidiary of the Department of State, where Brandeis has a relationship through an alumnus. They were excited to hear about our efforts and offered to assist us as and when we might need their help. They echoed the sentiments of Rabbi Goldberg and his colleagues in appreciating Brandeis’ magnanimity.
Back on campus, charged by the encouragement we have received from various quarters, Revive Mumbai is working hard to realize its goals. We are committed to raising the $50,000 needed to establish the proposed scholarship and are looking forward to establishing an opportunity for those interested in participating in the Chabad house reconstruction efforts. Of course, none of our missions can be accomplished without your support.
* Note: This article was previously published in an edited form by Cleveland Jewish News
It’s been a rough several days. This wasn’t the Thanksgiving weekend I had in mind. I was looking forward to taking a break to relax, eat well, enjoy time with friends, and pause to reflect on gratitude and appreciation in my life. Turns out, that’s what Gabi and Rivki gave me every time I went to Chabad for Shabbat.
I spent nearly four and a half months living in Mumbai from January to June, 2007, while volunteering with the American Jewish World Service. I worked with NGOs located in South Mumbai, in the area of last week’s attacks. These sites are not abstract to me; they are real, I was there, and they are personal. Especially Chabad.
On my second day in Bombay, I went to Chabad for Shabbat dinner. It was very hard to find. Even after taking a taxi from the train station, it took me nearly an hour to locate the house on Colaba Causeway, the main tourist strip, also the site of two other attacks. Upon entering, I was welcomed immediately by Rivki Holtzberg. I was instantly struck at how pale her skin was, as if she never was exposed to sunlight, and how cool she looked, as if she was completely oblivious to the raging heat outside. I wondered how a woman like her would end up in a place like Bombay. Now I understand that only a woman like her, an eishet chayil, could be there.
I tried speaking Hebrew with Rivki until my vocabulary ran out, and then she easily switched to English. I remember so clearly the sound of her typical Israeli lisp, and how she looked at me with such direct focus while we were talking. I recall being surprised that there was a Lubavitch community in her hometown when she said, “Ani m'Afula.” I held her 2 month old baby, Moishe, and watched him grow and develop a unique personality more with each visit.
My next visit to Chabad was two weeks later, and unfortunately coincided with the onset of Bombay Belly, an intense stomach bug. Rivky lovingly nursed me that night. I was too ill to sit at the table so she had me lay down on a couch in front of the bookshelves packed with sifrei kodesh. Even hours later, I was still too sick to get back home, so she made up the couch for me to spend the night. Rivki was the next best thing to my mom that night; I had no idea she was only one year older than me.
Every Shabbos, Rabbi Gabi asked everyone to go around the table and introduce themselves, and then to choose from one of four options:
1. lead a song,
2. give a drosh or dvar torah,
3. pledge to take on a new mitzvah, or
4. tell an inspiring and heartwarming story.
He was always smiling face sitting at the Shabbos table. His pure love for the gift of rest from the Divine was visible.
Over the next months at Chabad I heard esoteric Jewish commentary, incredible stories from friends working with the local Jews, Shabbat songs sung with great passion and joy, and an amazing history from a child of Holocaust survivors about how his parents met. It was a place where I never had to explain myself to someone who didn't understand a simple tiny thing because of a language or culture barrier. It was a place where I could eat familiar foods instead of unfamiliar ones all the time. Rivki's ability to take Indian ingredients and turn them into traditional Shabbos table dishes was impressive. It was a place where I felt natural, at home, safe, and protected by a community. My regular visits at Chabad, and especially with Rivki, helped me feel grounded in the everyday madness of Mumbai.
The fact that Gabi and Rivki volunteered to serve in Mumbai speaks volumes about them as people. Pushed by a call to engage with the world and spread warmth and love, they placed themselves incredibly far from their comfort zone. Difficult as it is, we must try not to let the fear imposed by the terrorists dim the light that is Gabi and Rivki’s legacy. My life has been so beautifully touched by the Holtzbergs, and I hope I will merit the ability to continue on in their good work of tikkun olam, in my own way. It was my privilege to know the Holtzbergs, and I’m grateful to honor their memory with you tonight, to give you a glimpse of what they would have offered you in their home in my beloved Mumbai.