As Chani Lifshitz stepped on an empty stage to address at least 2,700 of her closest sisters here last Sunday, one woman was noticeably missing from the crowd — her very best friend, Rivky Holtzberg.
Lifshitz spoke to a sea of women gathered at the 21st Annual International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Women Emissaries — a weeklong convention that concludes with a beautiful banquet after several days of intense learning, training and reconnecting. This was the first mass gathering of Chabad emissaries since the terror attack in Mumbai three months ago, which buried Rabbi Gavriel and Rivkah Holtzberg. Addressing the fortitude and leadership of this strong network of Chabad women, speakers led the evening’s proceedings in memory of the slain couple.
“Nothing will ever break us — or so I thought,” said Lifshitz, who is in her ninth year as an emissary to Katmandu, Nepal — just a two-hour flight from Mumbai.
“I lost the very best friend I ever had — I lost my Rivky,” she continued. “Since then I have never stopped searching for her.”
When Holtzberg and Lifshitz met in their Southeast Asian neighborhood four and half years ago, the two women formed a “neighborly connection” that soon grew into a friendship of “twin souls,” as Lifshitz describes.
“I was a relatively veteran shluchos [female emissary] in this neck of the woods,” Lifshitz said, explaining how she helped Holtzberg get adjusted and settle into her new — and very different — neighborhood. But soon, Lifshitz was just as much relying on the newcomer for comfort as Holtzberg looked to her for guidance.
In continued tears of disbelief, Lifshitz recalled how only two weeks before the attack, Gavriel Holtzberg and her own husband had foraged India together in search of a kidney for a fellow Jew. Only 12 hours before the tragedy occurred, Lifshitz said that something began to disturb her, and instinctively, she signed onto instant messenger to tell Rivky Holtzberg “I love you.” And just two hours before the attack, Holtzberg messaged that baby Moshe had finally agreed to go to bed.
Back on the podium, Lifshitz spoke directly to Holtzberg as if she were in the room among the women, rather than an image projected on a cinema-sized screen. Holtzberg’s face was sorely absent from the crowd, but Lifshitz assured the audience that her best friend was in fact there, attending the Women’s Conference with them in spirit.
Three months after tragedy befell in Mumbai, friends and family are still trying to pick up the pieces and prepare a new beginning for the crumbled community.
For the time being, Gabi Holtzberg’s parents and brother are temporarily manning the rabbi and rebbetzin positions in Mumbai, but plans are in the works to bring in more permanent pair of shluchim, according to sources at Chabad.org.
Despite their loss of Holtzberg, however, Chabad women continue to chug along — saying they are using the Mumbai tragedy and the economic upheaval as a springboard for them to leap forward, to be even more productive.
“Are Gabi and Rivky now a symbol of heroism? I think that is so,” life strategist Rabbi Shea Hecht told the Jewish Week, mentioning just how many babies in the community have been named Gavriel and Rivkah since. “People are somehow identifying with them.”
“This is the time to initiate new programs,” said Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, who oversees the Chabad emissaries and was a speaker that evening. “This is not the time to cut back.”
Dini Freundlich, emissary to Beijing, agrees with this sentiment, yet she and her family continue to feel the aftershock of the terror, as it reverberates through Asia.
“It felt extremely close to home because we live in a very similar setting,” Freundlich said, noting that most of the Asian Chabad houses harbor backpackers, students and tourists in transit. “I can just imagine that she was doing what I was doing.”
After hearing about the tragedy and viewing the horrific images, her five children — who range from 18 months to 13 years — expressed fear that a similar attack could threaten them too.
“They asked a lot of questions, had a lot of concerns: ‘It could’ve happened to us,’ ‘Is the front door locked?’ They felt like it almost happened to them,” Freundlich said, noting that for the first 10 days or so, all five of her children slept in her bedroom.
“Suddenly they were thrown into an R-rated movie in their living room,” she added.
Freundlich and her husband are working to safeguard their own home, and they are currently receiving help from the Israel Embassy’s security force, as well as El Al Airlines security team and the local Beijing police.
“We have taken on different measures to put better security measures at the school and the Chabad house,” she said. They are improving video surveillance in both buildings, and on Friday nights, Beijing police officers will patrol the area. Freundlich herself is equipped to do anything from directing a taxi driver to handling a problematic situation — because she decided to learn the local language, Mandarin.
“You have to learn the language,” she said. “I had to go to the grocery store and shop; I had to tell a taxi driver to turn right or left.”
But at the same time, like all of the resilient women at the Women’s Conference, Freundlich pressed on with her programs, where she said she has 50 children attending her secular studies school. In the evening she guides her two oldest children through their Webcam Judaic studies class, where they learn with an instructor alongside three girls from Europe.
“They go on early — an hour before — and stay an hour after for the social opportunity,” she said.
Much closer to the tragedy in distance and in friendship, the Lifshitzes made sure to visit the devastated community for a Chanukah menorah lighting, just one month after the attack. But as they grieve, Lifshitz and her family also move forward, and they continue to serve Shabbat dinners to backpackers each week and to prepare for their huge Passover seders.
“When you are part of a unique army such as ours, you can never wallow in mud,” she told the nearly 3,000 women. “We are the path.”
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