It might have been any other Tuesday night, but for some 350 Jewish women from all walks of life, it was something more. Gathering together in Melbourne, Australia, the crowds of women came to the Caulfield Shul to unite in person and in spirit.

Co-sponsored by Sara Gutnick, the rebbetzin at the historic Elwood Shul and a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary, and leaders representing several synagogues and Jewish institutions in Melbourne, the “Women in Unity” event was the second instalment in a program created in the wake of the Mumbai, India, terrorist attacks. For this particular evening, Frieda Holtzberg, mother of slain Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg – who was killed by terrorists at his Chabad House, along with his wife, Rivka Holtzberg, and four guests – addressed the assembly.

“After the Mumbai tragedy, there was an obvious need to respond with unity,” said Gutnick. “The first function was such an overwhelming success that we decided to do another one.”

Falling out in the days before Purim, the timing of the event was appropriate, she said, not only for the emphasis on responding to tragedy with joy, but also because it took place on the one-year anniversary of another terrorist attack: the shooting of eight students at Jerusalem’s Mercaz Harav yeshiva.

“Although it was mostly a serious evening, the focus was not on being sad,” emphasized Ettie Spigelman, director of general studies at the girls’ campus of Melbourne’s Adass Israel school. “Purim is a joyous time, and as Jews, we show that even when there are things to be sad about, we can’t stay sad forever. We are always moving from sorrow to happiness.”

Several more gatherings are being planned in the coming year.

Attendees said that one of the best features of the evening was the mere fact that hundreds of local women gathered as one.

“The unity of the evening was palpable,” said Miriam Telsner, rebbetzin of the Yeshivah Synagogue and an organizer of the gathering. “You look into the audience and women of all types. That is the most beautiful part.”

“Unity brought about by women for women can have a major impact on the Jewish people in general,” stated Riva Cohen, a Senior teacher at Beth Rivkah Ladies College, and another of the event organisers. “The community’s reaction has been tremendous.”

The program featured three prominent guest speakers, each a member of a different synagogue, who spoke about various aspects of Purim. There was also a humorous skit produced by three local synagogues.

The most poignant part of the event, however, came when Holtzberg took the podium.

Frieda Holtzberg
Frieda Holtzberg

An Awed Silence

In her address, Holtzberg focused on the sacrifices her son and daughter-in-law made in moving so far from their families and running a Chabad House for thousands of Jewish visitors, businesspeople and members of the local Mumbai community.

“They left their comfortable life and chose to move to India,” she said, “a place full of poverty and illness.”

Holtzberg – who that week toured Australia with her husband, Rabbi Nachman Holtzberg, and Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz, director of the Mumbai Relief Fund – also related touching stories of her son and daughter-in-law’s life.

“Before visiting them once, I asked Rivky if she would like me to bring her a dressing gown,” began Holtzberg. “She replied that she would have no use for it, because she’s always fully dressed, just in case someone came to the Chabad House and needed her.”

Pausing for a moment, Holtzberg added: “The dressing gown I bought her was found in her cupboard, still in new condition five years later.”

She also related how her son typically slaughtered 250 chickens a week, which her daughter-in-law would salt according to kosher law, a taxing process that draws out forbidden blood from the meat. One time, said Holtzberg, her daughter-in-law wrote that things were easy that day because there were only 75 chickens to prepare.

An awed silence followed Holtzberg’s speech, after which Naomi Sprung, the rebbetzin of Melbourne’s Mizrachi community who emceed the evening, stood up and announced: “I’d like everyone to stand up and look at all the people here.”

The exercise, designed to highlight the camaraderie of the attendees, revealed not one empty seat in the overflowing hall.

“In one way, Mrs. Holtzberg gave us strength, but we also did the same for her,” said Spigelman. “It was like a puzzle where everything fits.”

“I had mixed emotions,” remarked Vardi Jacobs, a Jewish studies and Hebrew teacher from Melbourne. “I felt happiness that we were to be graced with her speaking about her late son and daughter-in-law, but also sadness at having it brought so close to home for us.

“It made me feel as if I knew them personally,” she continued. “And yet, it made me wish that I really had had the privilege and honor of having actually met such” righteous people.