narimanIt was almost two years ago that Islamist militants attacked Mumbai and killed at least 166 people. Among them were six Jews, including Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife Rivka. Most non-Jewish readers probably had no idea what a Brooklyn-based Jewish couple was doing there. Many Jews would have known right away — they were running the Chabad House, one of a worldwide network of Jewish centres run by Chabad-Lubavitch, a Hasidic movement devoted to supporting Jewish life wherever it may be found. (Photo: Indian commandos atop Chabad centre after explosion during militant siege, 28 Nov 2008/Punit Paranjpe)

The news angle to this story is that the Mumbai centre has a new rabbi, just in time for the High Holidays, as reported in my feature here. Rabbi Chanoch Gechtman arrived there recently with his wife Leiky to take up the challenge of filling Holtzberg’s shoes. “I still can’t quite fathom that they are not here, they were such extraordinary people,” he said in an email from Mumbai. After all the damage to the original building, they’ve moved to another building not far away, but the address is not advertised on their website for understandable reasons.

gechtmanThis could be a daunting assignment, but Gechtman, 25, seemed eager to get to work. “People really believe in this city. It’s a place with a lot of energy; it’s full of life,” he said. “There is really an endless amount of work to be accomplished. And the Holtzbergs set the bar very high.” The work is literally endless — a couple that goes out on an assignment like this is expected to stay permanently. The commitment for the “shluchim,” as these emissaries are called, is supposed to be for life. And it’s a job for both the rabbi and his wife.  Running a Chabad House means offering services such as kosher Sabbath dinners, Torah classes, youth programmes, day care facilities, summer camps and women’s ritual baths. It’s an open house for any Jew who wants to participate — locals, expatriates or tourists passing through the city. (Photo: Leiky and Chanoch Gechtman/

“The Mumbai Jewish community definitely wants to move beyond 26/11. While we will obviously never forget what happened, we need to focus forward on helping the many people who need our assistance, so that Jewish life flourishes here,” Gechtman said.

On a recent visit to New York, I went to the world headquarters of Chabad-Lubavitch to find out more about this network, which has expanded dramatically over the past few decades.  The Crown Heights section of  Brooklyn seems an unlikely place for the world headquarters of anything, but the house at 770 Eastern Parkway has been Chabad’s base since 1940, when the then leader, Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, escaped from Nazi-occupied Poland. The last Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, worked there until his death in 1994. Chabad also has a large building next door.