Several days after hearing that Chabad Lubavitch emissaries Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife Rivkah were among the nearly 200 people killed in a string of terrorist attacks last week in Mumbai, Philadelphia-based Lubavitch Rabbi Levi Yitzchok Weber was still in a state of shock.
"I cannot believe it," said Weber, reached on his way to New Jersey's Newark International Airport. He was en route to Israel to attend the Holtzbergs' funeral. "But we are soldiers, and we are on a mission, and we need to go on and spread the light."
Weber is also a Lubavitch emissary and focuses on outreach to the Israeli community in the Philadelphia area. Seven years ago in Israel, he served as a mentor to Gavriel Holtzberg before they moved to India in 2003. The Holtzbergs' 2-year-old son Moshe survived the recent attacks and was brought to family in Israel, along with his parents' remains.
"He was a very, very happy person, always had a smile on his face," said Weber of Gavriel.
Weber certainly wasn't the only one in the area with a personnel connection to the young couple. Rabbi Yaacov Halperin, director of Chabad Lubavitch of the Lehigh Valley in Allentown, considered Gavriel Holtzberg a friend. The two had met at numerous international Lubavitch conferences.
"This is hard for all of us. The reason he was murdered is … because he was a Jew," said Halperin. "This is something for the entire Jewish people to reflect upon. It's hard to try and understand what we're experiencing."
Halperin said that he's planning to visit Israel next week to attend a wedding; his sister is marrying Rivkah Holtzberg's first cousin.
He expects it to be a bittersweet affair, to say the least.
The tragedy deeply affected not only those who knew the family personally, but everyone who's made the same choice as the Holtzbergs, and have spent their lives teaching Judaism and spreading the message of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
Rabbi Yossi Kaplan, director of Chabad Lubavitch of Chester County, noted that in 1994 — long before the movement had a full-time presence in what was then called Bombay — he spent a summer there running programs and teaching classes.
'This Really Hits Home'
He described Mumbai as an exhausting place to work.
Kaplan explained that its sheer intensity and scope can drain even the most energetic of people, adding that what the Holtzbergs had been able to accomplish there in five years — performing weddings and funerals, and doing ritual slaughtering, all while working on educational outreach — was nothing short of miraculous.
"I can't hold a candle to them," Kaplan said of the couple.
He recalled meeting Gavriel once or twice: "He wasn't only an acquaintance, he was a spiritual brother. This really hits home."
Rabbi Abraham Shemtov, director of Lubavitch for the Philadelphia region, said that the organization's annual Chanukah parade will be dedicated to the Holtzbergs.
Several memorial services organized by Chabad were planned for earlier this week, including programs on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, at the Glazier Jewish Center in Yardley and at Chabad Lubavitch of the Main Line at the former General Wayne Inn.
In addition, Lubavitch announced a community-wide service on Monday, Dec. 8, at 7:30 p.m. at the Congregation B'nai Abraham at 527 Lombard St., Philaadelphia.
Rabbi Shraga Sherman, director of Lubavitch of the Main Line, said that, "in essence, we are asking people to emulate the shining example of Gabi and Rivki, that we should dedicate our lives to a little bit more goodness and kindness."
The enormity of the terrorist attacks clearly reverberated outside Chabad circles as well.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia released a statement expressing "solidarity with the people of India, a country of diverse religious faith and strong democratic values, in the face of this ongoing threat and unspeakable tragedy."