Passover Seders With Chabad in Mumbai


Passover Seders With Chabad in Mumbai

by Baila Olidort - Mumbai, India

April 6, 2009

(lubavitch.com) There will be seders in Mumbai this Passover.

Chabad-Lubavitch rabbinical students arriving from New York in the days before the holiday, hit the ground running. The city’s streets are hot and stuffy and crowded. People are friendly but trust is tricky. For security reasons, publicity for the seders is by word of mouth only.

With an exhaustive to-do list that keeps the students moving at a frenetic pace, Chezzi (Yechezkel)  Denebeim, 23, from Palm Springs, CA, admits “that I have no time to really reflect.”

That’s a good thing, because the absence of Gabi and Rivki Holtzberg is impossible to escape, especially now, when the couple, murdered by terrorists in their Chabad House last November, would have been busy preparing to host hundreds at their Passover Seders.

The void is more than gaping. “Gabi ran a massive outreach program here. He was a tremendous ‘chevre-man’,” says Chezzi, using the Yiddish compliment for a hustler with a soul. Speaking to lubavitch.com by phone, he says that the young couple created an exciting, meaningful Jewish life for countless people now smarting from this staggering loss. "They were the reason so many came here, and returned, again and again.”

Last year, two hundred people flocked to Chabad of Mumbai’s grand seder table; this year there will be less, though the rabbis won’t know how many until the seder begins. Last year, guests raised the four cups of wine at a beautiful table set by Rivki in the large Chabad House; this year, they’ll make do in the small, temporary, apartment that Chabad has rented since the attack.

The seders in Mumbai are part of the worldwide Chabad-Lubavitch Passover campaign funded by the support of philanthropists, including Mr. George Rohr and Mr. Guma Aguiar. A special grant for the Indian seders was made by Australian philanthropist, Rabbi Joseph Gutnick.

Until Chabad representatives will be appointed by Chabad-Lubavitch Headquarters to a full time, permanent position in Mumbai, rabbinical students serving month-long stints there keep Chabad’s programs and services going.

“Clearly, restoring Jewish life here, substantively and in terms of the scope that Gabi and Rivki have developed over the years, will be a process that will take time and a lot of hard work,” Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, Vice Chairman of Merkos L'Inyonei Chinuch, the Chabad-Lubavitch educational division, told Lubavitch.com. “The facts on the ground, as every shift of rabbinical students is discovering, reveal that theirs will not be easy shoes to fill.”

Before leaving for India, the rabbinical students met with Rabbi Yosef Chaim Kantor, director of Chabad of Thailand who is overseeing activities in Mumbai. Kantor reviewed protocol with the students, reminding them to honor “Gabi’s and Rivki’s outstanding characteristics of generosity, warmth, compassion and unconditional hospitality with which they greeted guests.”

Chezzi’s Monday checklist includes finding an additional refrigerator and an oven for the apartment, koshering the kitchen for Passover, arranging internet connection, drawing up the shopping list, confirming security arrangements, sending out a Torah and quantities of matzah to Jews in Bangalore, Goa and Manali.

“Gabi and Rivki looked out for many of the Chabad representatives in the region,” says Schneur Lifshitz, another of the rabbinical students who handled many of the logistics from New York, before arriving in Mumbai early this week. “The Holtzbergs were also an invaluable resource to them.”

The students will stop at the ravaged Chabad House to collect tables and chairs, Rivki’s Passover dishes, and other items for the seder. Asked if there will be a particular tribute to the Holtzbergs at the seder, Schneur says, “All of it, everything we are doing, is because of Gabi and Rivki.”

For those who’ve been with the Holtzbergs last Passover, the bitter herbs on this year’s Seder plate will be doubly pungent. Everywhere he goes, says Shuly Davidson, one of the rabbis, he meets people who speak of Gabi and Rivki with reverence and a sense of genuine personal loss.

Dr. Aron Abraham is a 40 something Indian native, a member of the Bnei Israel, who lost a mentor, father figure, teacher, and confidant, with Gabi’s death.

“This is what it’s like to be orphaned,” he says quietly. 

But Passover is a joyous festival, and Chabad’s rabbinical students who’ve given up the seders with their own families, are determined, they say, to displace the sadness and help the Jews in Mumbai take to heart the holiday’s lessons of transcendent joy. 

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