It is easy to smile when things are going well. But to smile, constantly and meaningfully when things are difficult, challenging and painful, is a real testament to one's character. No matter who you speak with, be it a family member, childhood friend, co-worker or passing traveler, you will hear the very same thing. Rivka Holtzberg was always smiling. And her smile had the power to light up not only her face, but the room and everyone within it. Her smile was the proof that even when things were hard, there was joy to be felt and a purpose in one's life to fulfill.
Rivka Holtzberg was no stranger to tragedy. And yet, when you met her, you would never have known. Unless asked, she rarely spoke about what tore at her heart and soul night and day. She rarely discussed her affliction and pain. Rivky, as she was affectionately called, had too many important projects she was working on and too much that she was grateful for, to let her difficulties slow her down.
Rivky, who at her death was five months pregnant, was a doting mother who adored little Moshe and insisted that she be the only one to put him to bed at night. People loved to watch her play, feed and care for him, with endless patience and love. He was her world. And she lovingly referred to him as her "malach," her "angel."
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Moishe'le has always been considered a miracle baby. The fact that he was rescued from the Chabad House by Sandra Samuel, his nanny, only underlines how he continues to defy all odds. Unfortunately, Moshe's oldest brother, Menachem Mendel, passed away two years ago from a debilitating genetic disease. When Moishe'le was born, free of this illness, he became Gabi and Rivky's little miracle.
Nechama Dina Kantor, a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary in Bangkok, Thailand, recalled how Rivky was helping in her preschool immediately following a devastating personal situation. She watched as Rivky prayed with the young children, sang to them and taught them. She was so full of joy, so full of life, so focused on their needs, that it was impossible to detect that she was suffering as well. Some people are able to force a smile while inside they fall apart. That was not Rivky. Her smile was genuine, sincere and honest. She never allowed her hurt to take away her happiness.
As Rivky explained to Corinne Marlen, a traveler who spent some brief but meaningful time with her, "When you have faith, you believe that G‑d puts challenges in front of you, and tests your faith. Sometimes you may not understand why things happen, but that does not mean you should lose faith. Sometimes it takes years to figure out what you learned from the situation…"
Rabbi Yosef Kantor spoke of how Gabi and Rivky were inseparable. "This was a couple that was so enamored with one another, and even that is an understatement," he said. "They had the utmost respect for one another and he would never do anything without her and she would never do anything without him." Whenever Kantor would speak with Gabi, from the practical to the personal, Rivky would be right beside him, offering encouragement and advice, and always giving direction. "Rivky's stamp was on everything that Chabad House did and everything they accomplished."
Not only did Rivky surmount incredible challenge, but her day to day life in India was far from easy. Coming from a comfortable life in Israel, a move to Mumbai, India was a huge shift. From food shopping, to maneuvering the pollution, traffic and bureaucracy, absolutely nothing was simple. Yet Rivky was not one to complain. She recognized the difficulty but her focus was on what needed to be done. And she knew that she was able to do it.
Those who visited her Chabad house would speak of her hospitality, and the warmth and comfort she emanated. These characteristics were part of Rivky long before she moved to India. Nechama Hadad, another emissary in Bangkok who attended seminary with Rivky in Lod, Israel, spoke of how she was as a student.
Rivka Holtzberg, nee Rosenberg, on her wedding day in 2002
"Rivky was synonymous with a smile, with laughter. You always knew when Rivky was there and she always made everyone feel at home. She was always available to help and was always doing something for another."
Rivky's mother, Yehudit Rosenberg, explained how her daughter would cook dinner for 30-40 people a night and for 50-60 on Shabbat. Their house was always open and everyone was welcome.
"They were magnets," said Rabbi Kantor. "When you were with them, you felt like you were in a different time and space. That is why people loved coming to be with them. Their home was an oasis in Mumbai."
To some, Rivky was like a daughter, to others like a sister, and to others, even in her young age, she was like a mother, caring for them and their needs. But all considered Rivky a friend. Rivky was close with the community members in India and was always available for a heart to heart conversation with a traveler passing through. She passionately taught classes to the women and loved to teach about the beauty of marital intimacy in Judaism. A great source of pride for Rivky was the mikvah, the ritual bath that they built, for Jewish women in Mumbai.
Rivky could often be found at the dinner table, sitting with the other women, laughing and talking. She was relatable, open, honest and real. She connected with the women, and not only was able to teach them, but was able to be their friend, give advice and counsel. The phrase, "We spent hours talking" as Corinne Marlen described, was something many have been able to say. How Rivky, amidst dealing with her personal and difficult situations, running a Chabad house, teaching classes, caring for Moshe, and cooking meals for dozens of people daily, had extra hours available for talking is a mystery. Yet she somehow did, and she made everyone feel that they were the most important thing going on when she focused on them.
Kantor reflected that even though the Holtzbergs were years younger than him and that Gavi had been his student, "They were my teachers in selflessness."
Rivky Holtzberg lived a life full of meaning and lessons. In her 27 years, she accomplished more than many can hope to in a lifetime. Rivky was passionate, compassionate and dedicated in all aspects of her life.
As Kantor emphasized, "Almost any woman would look for a way to move out of India. And she had every reason in the world to do so. But that was not Rivky. Rivky didn't look for ways out. Rivky only looked for what she could do to help."