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Rivka Holtzberg, Chabad House Director, Was No Stranger to Hardship

Rivka Holtzberg, Chabad House Director, Was No Stranger to Hardship

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Rivka Holtzberg, second from left, and her son Moshe pose for a picture with some young women who had come to their Mumbai, India, Chabad House.
Rivka Holtzberg, second from left, and her son Moshe pose for a picture with some young women who had come to their Mumbai, India, Chabad House.

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."

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
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."



Sara Esther Crispe, a writer, inspirational speaker and mother of four, is the co-director of Interinclusion, a nonprofit multi-layered educational initiative celebrating the convergence between contemporary arts and sciences and timeless Jewish wisdom. Prior to that she was the editor of TheJewishWoman.org, and wrote the popular weekly blog Musing for Meaning. To book Sara Esther for a speaking engagement, please click here.
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Rebecca November 14, 2012

thank you for advocating screening for jewish genetic diseases.
Honestly, I was taken aback when I learned they had 2 children with tay Sachs. It is unbelieveable to me that people do not get screened, or go to genetic counseling.
I have personally seen how it devastates families. The fact that it can be avoided, but isn't, astounds me.

Zichrona l'vracha. may Rivka's memory continue to be a source of strength and blessing. Reply

Dr. Amy Austin Rancho Mirage, CA/USA August 15, 2012

If one wants to purchase the Spread More Light pin in memory of the Holtzbergs, ob'm, you can log onto www.spreadmorelight.com or contact Chabad of Rancho Mirage, CA and Rebbetzin Chaya Posner can help you. This pin was created so that we remember always how the Holtzberg's filled our lives with light and always worked to dispel the darkness.
Proceeds from the pin go to Lubavitch educational programs.
May we all go from strength to strength in the Holtzbergs loving memory. Reply

DEvorah Los Alamitos, Ca August 15, 2012

Bs'd
Dear Rabbi's:
I still burst into tears every time I read about Rivkah and Gabi. I know that their son lives
in Israel can you please print a story or keep
us updated how little Moshele is doing. He will
remain an inspiration to am yisroel. He is loved by many people worldwide. Reply

Carol Dempsey St Petersburg Florida July 21, 2012

To this past Friday evening I still light Sabbath candles in her honor and memory. Reply

Hinda Langer SF, CA via chabadgn.com December 6, 2011

I was commenting back to the doctor about genetic testing.
I rarely respond to articles so I just realized that I should refer to the specific person I am responding to.
As far as the savage, senseless way that this tragedy happened - this is our question to Hashem. Reply

Bonnie November 30, 2011

I hear you. I really do hear you.

Yet, there is also the how life can be lived on such a savage level.

This can not pass. I am very angry. There are things done that deserve all the anger one can muster. Reply

Anonymous Rancho Mirage, CA/USA November 28, 2011

Rivky Holtzberg was an inspiration to all of us through so many acts of kindness in her life.
Please check out the "Spread More Light" pin in her memory at www.spreadmorelight.com.
All proceeds go to Chabad Lubavitch educational programs.

May we go from strength to strength in her blessed memory. Reply

HINDA LANGER SF, CA via chabadgn.com November 23, 2011

A friend told me this from a Torah teacher: Every morning when I wake up Gd gives me free choice as to how to live my life, when I go to sleep at night - I look back and want to understand Hashem's message for me through what He decided would happen.

After the fact - when there is already a completed reality we ask ourselves what can we learn/do in our own lives and how did this person live their life - with emunah and bitachon, faith and trust that Gd is good and life is good? that Gd wanted things to happen that we don't understand?

It seems that Gd has special pure neshamas like Rivky Holtzberg and all the women/mothers/wives like her that show us how life can be lived on a higher plane.....maybe the test of a doctor happens very frequently in having knowledge, rational learning that cannot still explain the "why" that is only Gdly wisdom -way beyond our limited view. Rivky showed us the "how" to live...when we know that the "why" -after the fact we are not able to understan Reply

Anonymous anywhere, earth November 11, 2010

Thank you for this touching article. I have not really been able to speak on the tragedy that happened to this young couple. It has moved me too deeply. I shall never forget them. They were good and decent people, who served the L-rd with joy.

I shall never stop the deep anger either. Reply

Ayala Bala Cynwd, PA November 9, 2010

Please, everyone, Tay Sacs is not so rare in the Ashkenazi Jewish Community. Please get tested before you start dating!

It is a recessive disorder, so if both partners have it, there is a 25% chance that each child will have it. There is a 50% chance for each child to be a carrier & be unaffected, and a 25% chance to not carry the gene at all.

All children with Tay Sachs go backwards in development from about age 2 & die by about age 5. In Europe, these were "babies who never grew up." The Torah rabbis agree that it is permissible to test and avoid these sorrows. If you do not want to know your status, use Dor Yesharim Testing, which will test and give a code for dating purposes.

May Rivka's memory be a blessing for all of Israel. Reply

Rivkah Columbus , oh November 9, 2010

When you live your life with faith and realize G-d creates the life within you, every soul on this earth has purpose. G-d makes the baby (we are just partners) who are we to decide the value in another human soul especially one who we feel might be limited. I learned this lesson that these souls are much closer to G-d than I will ever be. Reply

Dr. Amy Austin Rancho Mirage, CA/USA November 9, 2010

I am well aware that the Holtzberg's lives and constant mitzvahs for others were far from random, but very conscious, loving and giving. Losing them felt like I lost part of my family, hence the creation and distribution of the "Spread More Light" tm pin.
May we all gain inspiration from the examples they set. Reply

Dena Modiin Ilit, Israel November 8, 2010

That was a beautiful and inspirational article. Gives me something to aspire to....
BTW, Amy, I don't think we consider what the Holtzbergs did "random acts of kindness". Their kindness was far, far from random, as is all chessed (kindness) in Judaism. Reply

Akz Chicago, Ilinois July 1, 2010

Rivkah Holtzberg is source of inspiration and strength. An example of kindness and selflessness. Reply

devora Rossmoor, Ca February 10, 2010

I cry whenever I am reminded of Rivkah Holtzberg I am sure that Moshele will grow up to be special and a talmud chochom (torah scholar) like his father. Also Rabbi Teitelbaum who is not mentioned in your e-mail reminds me of Rabbi Akivah, his widow and eight children have a special place in my heart and many people feel the same way. They are both lights unto the nations. Reply

md wonders denver, colorado February 9, 2010

I am sure Rivky was a wonderful mother. However, I wonder why after having one child with a genetic disorder why she continued to have children? Why wasn't she tested for genetic diseases before she was married? She obviously knew that her third child could have the disease as well, that's why she was so relieved that Moshe didn't have the disease, because she knew that the chances of him having the disease was high. Is that fair to a child? Reply

Anonymous Toronto, Canada November 29, 2009

Rifky Holtzberg is a new role model for me to aspire to daily. She is so amazing and definitely a light unto the nations. Reply

Dr. Amy Austin La Quinta, CA/USA July 30, 2009

My pleasure Jan and again thanks for inquiring.
Shabbat Shalom.
Amy Reply

Jan Schulman Oxnard, CA July 30, 2009

thanks Amy. I look forward to hearing about it when it becomes available. Reply

Dr. Amy Austin La Quinta, Ca/USA July 30, 2009

HI Jan,
I appreciate so much your interest in purchasing the "SPREAD MORE LIGHT"tm pin.
The pin will be ready to purchase in the fall and the marketing will also commence in the fall.
The pin comes on a card with a message about its meaning and of course is dedicated to the tireless work of the Holtzbergs, ob'm; and that Chabad houses all over the globe and Moishe's education can benefit (G-d willing).
Thanks so much for inquiring and may G-d grant us all good news in the Rebbe's and Holtzbergs' merit and memory. Reply

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