For two days, my calls went unanswered. “I’m sorry I didn’t get back to you sooner,” Rabbi Viktor Atia tells me on the third day, “but I was in Vienna, Austria, telling my life story to four different audiences.”

Rabbi Viktor Atia, 52, is a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary in Kiryat Arba, on the outskirts of the holy city of Hebron. The residents of the city, as well as the many soldiers who provide security for them, know him well. They admire his inexhaustible efforts and make it a point to greet the beloved figure who always seems to be out and about. He is married to Devora. A native of the town, she is the daughter of legendary painter Baruch Nachshon. They have 12 children.

The rabbi was born in the coastal Israeli town of Bat Yam and grew up in a traditional home. “We used to make a ‘television Kiddush.’ In other words, we made Kiddush with the TV on and watched Hebrew-language films. Shabbat was a day for beach games, soccer and similar pursuits. I was a good athlete, excelling at the high jump, and my life looked wonderful, but inside I felt hollow. Then it happened—a friendly Chabadnik suggested that I put on tefillin. Even though I didn’t want to, I thought maybe it could fill that emptiness. I thought about the words of the prayers, but they didn’t speak to me.”

Still, Viktor began to spend his Friday nights at the Chabadnik’s home. He was taken by the Torah and the singing, and within a year, he was a member of the Chabad community. “You could say that, beyond Chabad’s compelling outlook on life and its purpose, the lifestyle spoke to me. I loved the idea of loving every Jew just because.”

After their marriage, it was natural for the young couple to search for a post as Chabad emissaries, preferably one close to Devora’s parents. That’s how they found themselves organizing activities for the people of Kiryat Arba and the soldiers of the area.

The rabbi’s winning smile and pleasant demeanor made him a beloved figure in the community, and their activities increased alongside their growing family.

Viktor tells his story and smiles, but there’s deep pain hidden behind the smile. On the 20th of Av, 5766, which this year corresponded to Aug. 14 (“I can’t believe that 10 years have flown past so quickly”), everything changed.

Viktor Atia in his youth
Viktor Atia in his youth

‘My Life Had Gone Into a Tailspin’

It was the last few days of the Second Lebanon War. The rabbi went to comfort a family whose oldest child died in combat in southern Lebanon. “The soldier’s father was furious with G‑d. He was taking it very hard. I was trying my hardest to explain to him that the fate of everyone and everything is decided in Heaven, and that it’s all for the best, in the big picture, but that there are parts of the picture we can’t see. I felt the father’s pain, and was trying to encourage him and cheer him up, when my phone rang. Rabbi Danny Cohen, Chabad emissary from Hebron, was on the line. He told me that there was a fire near my house and that I’d better come. It didn’t sound too dramatic, so I asked him to keep me posted. But when my wife phoned, I knew in my heart that something bad had happened. I heard her scream, ‘Viktor, come home immediately, Chaya Mushka has been burned,’ and I knew that my life had just gone into a tailspin.”

Viktor jumped into his car and sped to Kiryat Arba. What alarmed him even more was a phone call made to his friend who was in the car with him. “He covered the phone with his hands so that I wouldn’t hear. That flooded my mind with memories of a time when I got a call about a terror attack and did the same thing; I was trying to hide the knowledge from family members of the murdered, who were standing next to me.”

Viktor vacillated between hope and despair, and begging G‑d to let him know how Chaya Mushka, the seventh of his 12 children, was faring. He opened a Chitat (book containing the Five Books of Moses, Tanya, Psalms and prayer book) that he had in the car and searched for a sign. The book opened to Ethics of the Fathers, and Viktor’s eyes were drawn to the Mishnah customarily a funeral: “Akabia ben Mehallel said: Contemplate three things ... ”

“It was like a knife piercing my heart. I put my head down and said, ‘G‑d, I understand Your message.’ ” When he got to Kiryat Arba, he saw a crowd around his house. Viktor approached a bystander and asked him: “Is it true that they weren’t able to save Chaya Mushka?” The man burst out crying, hugged him, and said: “Blessed be the True Judge,” the traditional phrase of acceptance of G‑d’s decree.

Chaya Mushka Atia, o.b.m.
Chaya Mushka Atia, o.b.m.

Later, they found out that Chaya Mushka, who had never played with matches in her life until that day, was playing, with her sister, with a box of matches that they’d found at the edge of the courtyard. “She’d never handled fire before, so she panicked and didn’t know what to do, and her dress caught fire. Her sister, who was by her side, yelled at her to rip off the dress, but Chaya Mushka, who had been extraordinarily particular about modesty all her life, said that without her dress she would be immodest.”

By the time someone heard their screams and understood what was happening, it was too late.

‘Either Take Me Away or Raise Me Up’

Viktor felt he was going to collapse. “I raised my eyes heavenward and told G‑d, ‘You’ve given me the hardest possible test. I can’t pass it. It’s too much for me. Either do me a favor and take me, too, or give me the strength to bear this decree.”

The following days were too terrible to bear. Viktor and Devora couldn’t stop crying day or night. The main thing they missed was Chaya Mushka “calling out” to them. “We called her ‘Talking Eyes’ at home. She was quiet and shy, and she always connected with us through her eyes. It was exceptional. Those searching eyes—those sweet, childish eyes—were gone. They could no longer look at us and tell us things. After a few days, we stopped crying when the children were around, but at night, when we retired to our room, all it took was for one of us to look at the other, and we found ourselves wordless and crying. It’s impossible to describe the pain. It feels like something is cutting into you, like someone’s doing surgery without anesthesia. It feels like a limb has been torn off, and you’re left feeling like half a person.”

Even now, 10 years later, he has to hold back tears. I thought about stopping the interview here and continuing sometime in the future, but Viktor explained that what came next was a part of the story that couldn’t be left out.

What relieved their pain were the thousands of efforts of people from all over the world to comfort them, most of them by people they didn’t know. The Atia family knew that although they were suffering a personal pain, many Jews felt that pain as if it were their own. It was proof that their daughter had found her way into many hearts.

‘The Jewish Nation at Its Best’

In addition to the phone calls, strangers came to speak to them and hug them. “We felt like people were sharing our pain, trying to understand it and to make it easier for us. The Jewish nation was showing itself at its best.” The chief rabbi of Russia, Rabbi Berel Lazar, who didn’t know them before the tragedy, began to phone Viktor to comfort him and to share with him that he’d lost his own daughter at the age of 7. Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, director of the International Conference of Chabad Emissaries, phoned to tell about the death of his brother and how the Lubavitcher Rebbe encouraged his family at that time.

They knew that the tragedy had G‑d’s approval. Viktor isn’t sure he wants to tell me how he knew that, but after a while, he does. One of his sisters-in-law dreamt that she saw one of her deceased grandmothers drawing Chaya Mushka close to her and holding her, saying “She’s ours now.” The sister-in-law grabbed Chaya Mushka’s arm and shouted, “No, she’s ours!” But after a short struggle, her grandmother said that Chaya Mushka wanted to come with her and was doing it of her own free will, and that her doing so cancelled a terrible decree. In real life, on the same day as the dream, a group of terrorists planning a bombing attack were captured after the bomb they were preparing exploded.

“I cried a lot the first year. I got teary when I thought about her. I might be walking down the street, in the synagogue or talking to someone, and I’d burst out crying. My friends didn’t know what had happened to me, but when I explained, they stood silent; they realized that this was an indescribable pain.”

Emerging From the Darkness

Then Viktor knew that he had to stop, so that his children wouldn’t lose their father as well. “I decided that in spite of the agony and the darkness, I was going to ‘grow wings’ and fly above this. I could either stay where I was and sink into depression, or I could take charge of my life and keep moving forward. The push was knowing that Chaya Mushka was watching me, judging me with her deep-seeing eyes and asking me, wordlessly, to overcome my sorrow. I did it for her, so as not to hurt her, but also for myself and my family. I’m going on in spite of my sorrow.

“My motto since that time has been that I have to rise from the ruins. I once heard that every man falls, but what’s special about a Jew is that he picks himself up again. And he doesn’t just pick himself up; he climbs to greater heights.”

He doesn’t hesitate to provide an example. “The tragedy made me appreciate what I have. It gave me a perspective that I didn’t have before. I look around and see that I have to appreciate and thank G‑d for all He’s given me, to be the father of that righteous, holy soul for all those years, to be the husband of my wonderful wife, the father of amazing children, and a son to the parents who love me. I did those things before, but now I’m coming from a much deeper place. I’ve become a new man in that respect.”

Chaya Mushka’s Home

He’s quiet for a moment, debating whether or not to say something more, and then he adds: “Everyone who enters the large Chabad House we’ve erected in her memory goes on and on about the warmth they find there, and how pleasant it is, but my heart aches every time I hear that because I know that it was built on the ashes of our tragedy. Still, I’m consoled by her providing the impetus to build this center that serves so many people.”

When Rabbi Atia speaks about the Chabad House, he’s talking about a building in the heart of Kiryat Arba that has become one of the central synagogues there, in which dozens of people pray daily. It houses a Jewish library, guest rooms with en-suite accommodations, a kollel for advanced study of Chassidism, and a cancer center that treats patients in a unique method. It’s filled on Shabbat with 150 children who come to enjoy treats, recite Torah verses, sing songs and hear a story.

“Children’s activities were Chaya Mushka’s ‘baby,’ and she was my baby,” he says.

“Even though it’s a central place and very active, and we’ve brought in an emissary to keep it that way, we haven’t raised money yet for air-conditioners. The atmosphere is pleasant, but the building is freezing in the winter and boiling in the summer. A friend just came from New York, and he donated a token sum towards air-conditioners, but we’re still short 85 percent of the money. I pray that G‑d will provide the money by Chaya Mushka’s 10th anniversary, even though I’m a terrible fundraiser.”

While he’s talking about his dream for Chaya Mushka’s 10th yahrtzeit, he mentions another dream: “One of Chaya Mushka’s kindergarten teachers wrote a book about her, and how giving and modest she was. We dream of publishing this as a children’s book with pictures. It would be a book that demonstrates good character.”

The Chaya Mushka Atia Chabad House in Kiryat Arba
The Chaya Mushka Atia Chabad House in Kiryat Arba

Spiritual Fortifications

I ask about the gunshots I hear in the background, but Viktor assures me that it’s normal and talks of a third dream, related to the gunfire. “Bullet-proofing vehicles is very expensive, so we’ve decided to fortify every local vehicle for only 50 shekels. How? It’s very simple. We buy them Chitat books, which the Rebbe said would ensure the protection and success of everyone in the car, and distribute them for free.”

Since, as he says, he’s terrible at fundraising, it took Rabbi Atia six years to raise the money for the Chabad House. If not for good friends helping him and approaching serious donors, the building would still be in the planning stages. “One of the Chabad rabbis told me in the name of the Rebbe that building a memorial is healing. It helped heal our shattered hearts.”

That’s where Rabbi Atia’s speaking tours come in. The story of how he and his family have chosen life has gained international attention, and he has become a sought-after speaker all over the world.

“I emphasize two points. The first is that we have to appreciate what we have—to know that it’s not all coming to us for free, that we have to thank G‑d for everything. The second is that we have to always be happy, even when it’s hard. We have to channel the difficulties until they lift us above them.