Tears for the fallen: S.F. memorial service honors terror victims

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It was San Francisco’s turn to weep for the dead in Mumbai.

Approximately 500 people filled Kanbar Hall at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco on Dec. 2 to attend “A Tribute to Mumbai.” Rabbis, community leaders and friends of murdered Chabad missionaries Gavriel and Rivkah Holtzberg came to express their grief. It was one of several Chabad-sponsored memorials held around the Bay Area, and one of thousands around the world.

Speakers at the event and others j. contacted this week all agreed on one point: the Holtzbergs were a uniquely welcoming couple, even in the hospitable realm of Chabad.

Rebbetzin Shternie Kagan of Chabad of Walnut Creek said Rivkah Holtzberg “taught us how to live a life of Torah, to trust in God even as the world crumbles around us.”

Local writer Jocelyn Berger knew the Holtzbergs well, having lived in Mumbai for six months last year working with American Jewish World Service. She made the Chabad House there a haven.

Berger recounted Shabbat meals with the couple, watching their son, Moshe, grow from infancy, and marveling at the kindness the couple showed to all.

“Pushed by a call to engage with the world and spread warmth and love, they placed themselves incredibly far from their comfort zone,” Berger said.

Rabbi Dovid Holtzberg remembered his cousin Gavriel as a kind of Mozart of the Talmud.

“As a kid he was doing the entire Mishnah, about 63 tractates, at the age of 10 or 11,” recalled the rabbi, who spoke to j. by phone from Israel, where he attended the Holtzberg funeral Dec. 2. “He finished the entire thing. He was a very special student, he always got the best marks, and he was always looking to achieve more and more.”

Dovid Holtzberg is now the rabbi at Chabad of Monterey. But he spent part of his childhood living down the block from his cousin in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood. Beyond the late rabbi’s acclaimed scholarship, he was “a lot of fun,” according to his cousin.

“He gave up living a lifestyle that would be very convenient for him if he remained in Crown Heights or Israel,” Holtz-berg said. “He decided to go a place which is very difficult. He did everything himself. He was a shochet [kosher slaughterer], he was a mohel. He had a lot of challenges.”

The late rabbi’s resourcefulness turned up in unexpected ways. Another childhood friend, Rabbi Peretz Mochkin of Chabad of S.F., remembered a trip he took with Holtzberg and other Chabad rabbis to Kazakhstan 10 years ago to conduct Passover seders.

“He pulls out his cell phone from his pocket and says, ‘I’m calling home,'” Mochkin recalled. “I figured, what, is that $15 to $25 dollars a minute? He was like, big deal, if the parents know you’re OK, it’s worth every penny.”

Mochkin also remembered from that trip how Holtzberg saved the day when it came to a planned visit to the local mikvah and grave of the late Chabad Rebbe Menachem Schneerson’s father.

“We were about to go,” Mochkin said. “The problem was nobody could get a hold of the rabbi to get the keys to the gravesite or the mikvah. Gaby got on his cell phone, figured it out, got the keys and got us in.”

Several dignitaries spoke, including S.F. Police Chief Heather Fong and Israeli Consul General Akiva Tor, both of whom offered condolences.

Rabbi Moshe Bryski, executive director of Chabad of Conejo Valley, delivered the memorial’s final eulogy.

“If anyone thought this would slow [Chabad] down,” he said, “you have no idea how hard we will fight back. We will overcome this evil by drowning it in goodness, and Gaby and Rivki will not have died in vain.”

Jews were not the only ones in attendance. Keerthivasan Ramachandran, an Indian native of Madras now living in Mountain View, came to the memorial because “it’s my duty to support the Jewish community. By culture Hindus appreciate pluralism and accept people of different beliefs.”

The memorial concluded with JCCSF Executive Director Sandee Blechman lighting a yizkor candle and Rabbi Yaakov Kagan of Chabad of Contra Costa chanting the El Malei Rachamim prayer.

Tragedy in Mumbai

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.