Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from a long essay of personal recollections by Dr. Isaac Balbin, a close friend and frequent guest of Rabbi Gavriel and Rivkah Holtzberg.

Shabbat in Melbourne, Australia, has just concluded. It is a cool and quiet evening. After two days of frantic searching, the information I was dreading reached me via SMS on that morning. One of my colleagues in Mumbai had been sending me updates, as were my past students who had travelled to the Chabad House, at my request. I saw the words, “we now pray for their souls, I am sorry,” flash up momentarily on my phone only to quickly disappear.

It was Shabbat and I couldn’t touch my cell phone. Frankly, I didn’t even want to. Instinctively, I knew what had happened—a nightmare on Hormusji Street. On Thursday evening, I had been singing at a Simcha, a joyous occasion. It was difficult, to say the least. In between sets, I had been ringing Gavriel. Fellow band members were trying to provide me with support. Gavriel had been silent for nearly two days. I feared the worst. We now know what transpired.

I feel compelled to write. Silence is not always golden. As a professorial member of staff at RMIT, I have been a frequent visitor to India over many years. I interview aspiring postgraduate students, especially those who may be eligible for scholarships, and who wish to study at RMIT’s prestigious School of Computer Science and IT. India is no holiday. I generally carry enough food in my suitcase to last the 12 days that I traverse this vast country. I have never “seen the sites” nor explored the country. I simply do my job and return home. There is no time, and to be candid, I have never wanted to venture far from hotels and airports.

Shabbat used to be a difficult day—cooped up inside a hotel room, reading and waiting for Shabbat to end. I knew there were some Jews in far flung areas of India, but my schedule meant that I was on a flight each day, and had little time or inclination for romantic visits to far flung communities in remote fringes of a vast country. Mumbai is large. It is claimed to be the second most populous city proper in the world. I used to stay in an area which was relatively close to the airport. One year, local colleagues advised me to stay somewhere a little more central. Coincidentally, I had heard that a Chabad House had opened up.

I landed in Mumbai late on a Thursday afternoon, on my way to the Taj Hotel from the airport, having arrived in India on the Sunday prior. I asked my Taj driver if the Chabad House was “on the way.” He didn’t recognise the “Hotel” where the Chabad House was then located but after a few calls he advised me that it was near the Taj and that he’d be happy to stop there. The car stopped. I was sure we were at a wrong address. This was surely a dilapidated hotel. Walking up to the top floor, because the lifts were not reliable, I was sweating profusely, as one does in Mumbai.

I came to a door with a Mezuzah and a little sign that read “Chabad House”. I knocked, but there was no answer. I knocked again, and still there was no answer. The door was slightly ajar, and I tentativey pushed it. In front of me a line of sefarim, Jewish holy books, materialised. You can’t imagine how foreign, a set of sifrei kodesh, holy books, seemed in India. I backed off, and continued to knock. Eventually, Rivki, may G‑d avenge her blood, came and invited me to sit down and wait because Gavriel was just returning from the fish market with fish for Shabbat. Menachem Mendel obm, their elder son, was playing nearby. I was thunderstruck by the scene.

In this part of the world where I always imagined there was not much more than me, a billion Indians, humidity, and a cornucopia of exotic smells, I suddenly found myself in the presence of Jews and Torah. I suddenly felt the need to give something. What did I have? Running downstairs to the cab and opening my suitcase, I returned with some chewing gum, wafers and assorted nosh. Rivki smiled, and said her son was too young for these things, but thanked me nonetheless. Rivki insisted that the guests would enjoy them. At that point, Gavriel arrived. We spoke and he insisted that I come for Shabbat meals. I don’t like to impose myself at the best of times, but “relented.” I was told to be at the lobby of the Taj at 6:05 p.m., on the next day, the eve of Shabbat.

Gavriel asked me to see if I recognised any other Jews and to bring them as well. This was the first time I wasn’t cooped up in a hotel room. I waited in the lobby and, eventually, a battered ancient black cab swung by the front and I could see Gavriel waving. I climbed into the tiny cab. There was barely space. One western person sat in the front, two Israelis, and Gavriel and I. For some inexplicable reason, we started to speak Yiddish. I discovered that one of the Israelis was an ex-Aussie, a son of Mord’che Rich, one of the pioneers of the Melbourne Jewish Community. It is a small world. Everything is Divine Providence. Prior to that we had spoken in Hebrew with a drop of English. We now spoke Yiddish until the last time I saw him. It was the language wherein we could speak privately, because almost nobody understood what we were saying.

At the Chabad House, we ate on the roof. There wasn’t enough room in the unit to accommodate the crowd of 15-20. I couldn’t believe there were other Jews in India. I discovered businessmen (mainly working in diamonds) and the Israeli backpacker phenomenon. While Gavriel held court with the males, Rivki was in animated discussion with the females. They were on a mission, and it showed. Mendy, their son, was present for a short time, and then was put to bed by Sandra Samuel, one of the home helpers. Sandra is now world-famous. She saved Moshe Tzvi, the little brother that Mendy would never meet. I was to learn later that Mendy had an incurable disease.

The scene was surreal. On the roof of an old hotel in Mumbai on a Friday night, surrounded by peaceful Hindus, we sat and spoke on a roof-top overseeing the famous Gateway of India. Gavriel had done his apprenticeship in Bangkok. We were all given the choice of saying words of Torah, singing a song, telling a story or undertaking a positive resolution. Thankfully, I wasn’t the first person to be called upon. I could have sung a song given that I run the Schnapps band in Melbourne, but I ended up saying words of Torah. I was to continue this tradition each time I visited.

My most recent one one was a few weeks ago before the tragic events that unfolded leading to the murder of Gavriel and Rivki.

Over the years, I watched Gavriel and Rivki evolve as two very young and inexperienced emissaries to become polished, non-judgemental and tolerant role models. There was some tension between the existing community and the perception of the “incursion” of Chabad into their space. I could detect it and wasn’t sure how to tackle the situation. On one occasion, after returning to Australia, I decided to send an email and be forthright. To his great credit, Gavriel thanked me for my advice and shared no animosity thereafter. Indeed, I was to become a sounding board on our walks back and forth to the synagogue on Shabbat.

On my last Shabbat with Gavriel and Rivki, only a few short weeks ago, most guests had left after the Shabbat meal. I always went for an afternoon nap. This time, I found myself drawn into conversation with Reb Gavriel and Rivki. We sat for hours and spoke about different things. We shared a bond and an understanding. In Melbourne, some people joked that I had become the “Emissary for Mumbai.” No, Gavriel and Rivki, may their innocent blood be avenged, were the dynamic team. They were everything. I was merely one of many occasional visitors, drawn to their Shabbat table by the extreme dedication and mesirat nefesh (self-sacrifice) they personified through their mission.

Mumbai wasn’t another far-flung Western locale in the middle of nowhere. I acknowledge that such places present their own challenges for people setting up Chabad Houses and I commend them for their work. Mumbai, however, is different. It is more than remote and challenging. Even those who came to “help out” before Passover, had difficulty coping in a physical sense. I remember the three young yeshivah boys who simply struggled to venture outside after one day. Most people are in shock given the extreme contrast to the, perhaps, pampered lifestyle we lead in the West.

It is hard for me to imagine that he and Rivki are now hovering around Gan Eden. Mumbai without both Gavriel and Rivki just isn’t Mumbai.