Just when you thought the terrorists had run out of novel ways to explore the depths of evil and stupidity, the Mumbai murderers decided to seize the Chabad House in that city and slaughter the rabbi and his wife. To understand what executing Rabbi Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg means in moral and spiritual terms, you need to appreciate what Chabad – the Jewish movement of which the Holtzbergs were envoys — represents in the world.
I know a little about that. My wife and I don’t identify with Chabad, but you could call us devoted fellow travelers. When the news came that the Holtzbergs had been found dead in Mumbai’s ruined Chabad House, my two oldest children were starting their school day at the Chabad House of Seattle.
A Chabad House is not just a synagogue. It’s more like a hospice in the old-fashioned sense, where spiritual pilgrims, lost souls, traveling businessmen, and ordinary local worshippers alike find a place to enjoy community — with meals, prayer, learning, even a place to sleep. Often there’s a school attached to the institution.
Virtually wherever you go in the world, no matter how exotic — the movement’s headquarters in Brooklyn has selected about 4,000 married couples in 72 countries for service — you’ll find a Chabad rabbi and his wife and family cheerfully attending to the physical and spiritual needs of a diverse clientele. The cheerfulness and warmth of Chabad is the quality that strikes me more than any other. My own regrettably saturnine personality may explain why I can’t fully identify with Chabad but am content to remain a well-wisher and admirer.
Every religion and every denomination has its besetting sins — vulnerable points in its spiritual DNA that, if unchecked, lead to negative behavior or attitudes of a particular kind. With Jews, the weakness is for a pallid rationalism, a way of being overly impressed by secular values. What I so admire about Chabad and its representatives is the way they succeed, more than any other movement in Judaism I know, in transcending these not-uncommon failings, triumphantly yet with a characteristic modesty.
I didn’t know Rabbi and Mrs. Holtzberg, but I know people who knew them and can guess with some confidence what they were like. Most Chabad emissaries, including the rabbi who runs the synagogue my family and I attend, seem cut from the same cloth. Indeed, many are related by marriage or blood. In photos, you see the humor and friendliness in the Holtzbergs’ faces. There’s a certain Santa Claus quality to many of the men, which has nothing to do with weight (in my experience most are thin, though one doesn’t picture a Chabad envoy working out at the gym) but with a sparkle in the eyes. The Chabad rebbetzins (the rabbi’s wives) are equally merry, often quite good-looking and smartly dressed (as I’m not the only guy to have noticed), and impressively competent domestic managers. Families are large — seven or more kids is not unusual — and a rebbetzin typically serves also as something like chief operations officer of the Chabad House with its various enterprises.