Walking to the Chabad House in Mumbai on a Friday evening in February 2007, my wife Dvorah, our daughter Rebecca (who is currently living in India) and I were passing half-naked families living on the cement streets. Outstretched hands. Wide, hollow eyes. We literally had to step over swarms of dejected souls.

But entering the Chabad House was like encountering a lighthouse in the middle of a dark ocean. It did not take long to realize that its proprietors, Rabbi Gavriel and Rivkah Holtzberg, were extraordinary people and practitioners of kindness. Thirty-five guests attended the Shabbat dinner, a mix predominantly made up of Israelis, many of them doing business in India, a fair number of Americans and scattered Jews from other countries.

Many of them, we learned, came to the Chabad House often. I remember one Israeli in the group — who had earlier that day, at Rabbi Holtzberg’s request, helped us find a hotel room — telling us that in Israel he was not a religious Jew, but that there was nothing he wouldn’t do for Rabbi Holtzberg, and how often he spent Shabbat with the rabbi and rebbetzin.

I have a vivid memory of conversing at length with Rivkah Holtzberg as she was preparing shakshuka for about 30 people coming to a Saturday night Melava Malka (post-Shabbat repast). All this, after serving 35 people Friday night and then a big lunch on Saturday. Yet as she told me about Afula, the Israeli town where she was raised, she was very calm and so upbeat, a truly religious neshama (soul).

On Shabbat afternoon, Rabbi Holtzberg pulled out a copy of Taharat Mayim, my grandfather Rabbi Nissen Telushkin’s sefer (book) on the laws concerning the mikveh, which also contains directions on how to build a ritual bath. He told the assembled guests that he had used the book as his guide to building the mikveh in Mumbai.

He handed me the book, with a request that I teach from it. I opened up to my grandfather’s introduction in which he described how he had been driven, in part, to delve so deeply into the laws of mikveh when the Communists seized power in Russia and made it nearly impossible to observe this mitzvah. In societies like India with very few Jews, there are no government obstacles to building a mikveh, but there are few Jews to use it, and I commented on how moved I was that Rabbi Holtzberg had built a mikveh. The pages of his copy were worn from use. I understood that my grandfather’s book had found a sacred home 60 years after it was written.

And later, when Reb Gavriel also taught from the sefer, I recognized on his face his profound joy of learning.

On Sunday he took us to see the mikveh, and we toured the Bene Israel synagogue where it was located. The whole day was magical. A listing of names, founders of the synagogue, was engraved on one wall. One of the people recorded bore the same name as my stepdaughter, Rebecca Menashe. What was apparent as we went around the synagogue with Rabbi Holtzberg was that he was beloved in the community.

At the Shabbat table, everyone was a participant and was called upon to say something. Benjamin Holtzman recalls how Reb Gavriel gave each participant at the Friday evening meal an option, to say something about the parashah (the Torah portion), teach or lead a song, share an inspiring story, or announce some mitzvah they were committing to undertake. It took well over an hour to go around the room, but by that time friendships had been generated and there was a great feeling of oneness among us all.

This holy couple was dedicated to bringing Judaism to the four corners of the earth, and to doing so with carefree spirits. Both Gavriel and Rivkah smiled easily and often. Yet their lives were not easy. They had lost one child, and another child was very sick (both due to a genetic disorder), in addition to the healthy son whose life was saved this week. But they kept their sorrows inside. There was no self-pity about them.

In India’s vibrant business capital, a city also overwhelmed with need and despair, they responded with unending hope. Two beacons of light blazing in the darkness. Two living exemplars of Judaism’s teachings of hachnasat orachim (hospitality), a value so esteemed that the rabbinic sage, Rabbi Judah, went so far as to declare that “hospitality is even greater than receiving the divine presence” (Shabbat 127a).

Reb Gavriel collected inspiring stories around his Shabbat table. Yet, as devastated and profoundly sad as I feel at this moment, I also realize that the sacred lives of these two shluchim was perhaps the most inspiring story of all.

Originally posted in The Jewish Week.