To those who knew him, Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg was both a scholar and confidant, a friend whose purpose in life was to help Jewish people wherever they were. Reached in the days following Holtzberg’s retrieval from the Mumbai, India, Chabad-Lubavitch center he co-founded, the rabbi’s friends noted how a man who sacrificed everything to help his fellows gave the ultimate sacrifice last week as he died beside his beloved wife Rivka.

Gabi, as his classmates and family affectionately called him, was a highly respected student of the Torah, who in his teenage years entered competition after competition in which he memorized the Mishnah, a compendium of rabbinical laws and enactments redacted in the second century C.E.

Rabbi Mendy Elishevitz, a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary in Karmiel, Israel, described his yeshiva classmate as “brilliant.” Rabbi Yitzchok Itkin of Brooklyn, N.Y., lauded his “extreme intelligence.”

But by all accounts, Holtzberg himself didn’t expect any praise or attention. He was the kind of person who simply did what it took to succeed, studying without any fuss.

“He always succeeded in a quiet way,” said Rabbi Menachem Heller, co-director of Brooklyn’s Chabad-Lubavitch of East Williamsburg, “surprising the people around him.”

And yet, in conversation, Holtzberg was “not quiet at all,” according to Rabbi Dovid Tiechtel, co-director of the Chabad Jewish Student Center serving the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He was always full of energy and upbeat. Despite losing a son to a genetic disease, he, like his equally effervescent wife, remained positive.

He Gave His All

Holtzberg’s main character trait, said Elishevitz, was his sense of purpose. Whether in studying or making friends, he was always focused on his mission.

A ritual circumciser and preparer of kosher meat, Holtzberg also performed weddings for the Mumbai Jewish community. He literally threw himself into his work.

“If he felt something was right,” said Heller, “he went all the way.”

Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg on his wedding day in 2002
Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg on his wedding day in 2002

Turning to their loss, Holtzberg’s friends asserted that they were redoubling their efforts in recognition of a man who gave his all.

“We are fortunate to have more days than he does,” said one friend. “We should use that opportunity to live as he did.”

"Gabi and Rivky Holtzberg made the ultimate sacrifice," said Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice chairman of Merkos L'Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of Chabad-Lubavitch. "As emissaries to Mumbai, Gabi and Rivky gave up the comforts of the West in order to spread Jewish pride in a corner of the world that was a frequent stop for throngs of Israeli tourists. Their Chabad House was popular among the local community, as well as with visiting businesspeople.

"For five years, they ran a synagogue and Torah classes, and helped people dealing with drug addiction and poverty," continued the statement. "Their selfless love will live on with all the people they touched. We will continue the work they started."

"They were wonderful people: warm, inviting and engaging," said Holtzman. "Gabi would get visibly excited to have so many guests for Shabbat; you could tell it really made his week. He would have a grin on his face almost the entire meal, including during his words of Torah.

"He was always so eager to create a communal feeling that he insisted everyone go around the table and say a few words to the group, giving guests four options: either delivering words of Torah, relating an inspirational story, declaring to take on a mitzvah or leading a song," continued Holtzman. "As most of the guests were Israeli backpackers and other passers-through, they might have found this quite novel. For us regulars, it was just Gabi's shtick."

His friends saw in the outpouring of support around the world something that Holtzberg would have harnessed to get people to strengthen their connections with Judaism and each other.

"The great awakening that is taking place among Jews all over the world, from all walks of life," said another friend, "is something that Gabi would be really happy about."

Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, 29, was murdered alongside his 27-year-old wife, Rivka. The couple was buried in side-by-side plots in Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives cemetery on Tuesday.