Children of the Mighty

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01 December 2008

The Rebbe Who Saved a Village

The Rebbe Who Saved a Village

For a while, it seemed that all was lost... then came a leader's bold response to the crippling tragedy...

Editor's note: In light of the recent tragedy which struck the Chabad-Lubavitch community, we find the following account, penned more than fifty years ago, particularly poignant--and most relevant.

What follows is a free translation of a story that appeared in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Achronot on Iyar 4, 5717 (May 5, 1957). We have left the article basically as it was originally published despite the fact that it contains some factual inaccuracies, because of its vivid portrayal of the mood of the time and the Israeli reporter's impression of the people and the events he describes.

Kfar Chabad in its early years - detail from a painting by Zalman KleinmanOn the eve of Yom HaAtzmaut (Independence Day) last year, as the bonfires were being raised on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, the lights were burning also in Tzafrir (Kfar Chabad), the Chabad-Lubavitcher village in the Lod Valley.
For four days the village had been in deep mourning and grievous anguish, the likes of which the Lubavitcher chassidim had not known in many years. On that black and bitter night, a band of fedayeen entered the village. They made their way to the synagogue of the local agricultural school, where the school's young students were in the midst of the evening maariv prayers, and raked the room with fire from their Karl-Gustav rifles. They reaped a cruel blood-harvest: five children and one teacher were killed and another ten children wounded; their pure, holy blood soaking the siddurim that fell from their hands and splattering the synagogue's white-washed walls.

The village chassidim, brawny, broad-shouldered Russian Jews with thick black beards and bushy brows, stood dumbfounded before the terrible scene that met their eyes. A pogrom in Israel! A pogrom in Chabad! they whispered, and bit their lips in rage. The women stood there too, hefty, handsome Russian matrons, wringing their hands and murmuring to themselves in Russian and Hebrew, their eyes emitting an endless stream of tears.

This was not a common scene for the Lubavitchers. These Chassidim, who had survived the pogroms in Czar Nikolai's Russia and whom the Red Army could not intimidate, who had been banished to the frozen plains of Siberia, whose backs decades in Stalin's prisons and camps could not bow, now stood stooped and despairing. Now, that the blow had hit home in the heart of the Jewish state.

In the center of the village stood Rabbi Avraham Maayor who had been a high-ranking officer in the Russian Army. Avraham Maayor, of whom legend told that he calmly stood and sang chassidic melodies as a band of soldiers beat him with the butts of their rifles, now stood crying out at the heavens: "Master of the Universe, Why?! How have the children sinned?!"

Despair and dejection pervaded the village, and began to eat away at its foundations. There were some who saw what happened as a sign that their dream of a peaceful life in the Holy Land was premature. Perhaps we should disband, seek refuge in safer havens? The village was slowly dying.

The Village Waits But it was clear to all that before any decisive move would be made, the Rebbe had to be consulted. Nothing would be done without his knowledge and consent. All awaited the telegram from "there," from New York, but the telegram was inexplicably not forthcoming. Four days had passed since the terror had struck. A lengthy telegram had immediately been dispatched informing the Rebbe of all the details of the tragedy, and an answer was expected that very night. But the Rebbe was silent. What happened, many wondered, why doesn't he respond? Has he not a word of comfort for his stricken followers?

A telegram from the Rebbe, it should be clarified, is an integral part of Chabad-Chassidic life across the globe. Every problem, every decision pertaining to the communal or private life of the Lubavitcher chassid is referred to the Rebbe's headquarters in Brooklyn, and whatever the reply, that is what is done. And the answer is always forthcoming, whether by regular post, express mail, or emergency telegram-depending upon the urgency of the matter-and always short, succinct, and to the point.

Why, then, is the Rebbe's answer on such a fateful matter tarrying? The village elders had no explanation, and, as the hours and days went by, the question continued to plague their tormented souls, and their anguish and despair weighed increasingly heavier on their hearts.

The Telegram And then, four days after the tragedy, the telegram arrived. The news spread throughout the village: A telegram from the Rebbe! The telegram has arrived! The entire village, men, women and children, assembled in the village square to hear the Rebbe's reply.

And the Rebbe was characteristically succinct. The telegram contained a single sentence-three Hebrew words-but these three words sufficed to save the village from disintegration and its inhabitants from despair. Behemshech habinyan tinacheimu, wrote the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. "By your continued building will you be comforted."

The Chassidim of Kfar Chabad now had a firm grasp on their future: they knew what they had to do. They must build! The Rebbe said to build! And that by their continued building they will be comforted! That very night the village elders held a meeting to discuss how the Rebbe's directive might be implemented. After a short discussion, a decision was reached: a vocational school will be built where children from disadvantaged backgrounds will be taught the printing trade. On the very spot where the blood was spilled, the building will be raised.

The Rebbe Knew The next morning, all residents of the village gathered at the empty lot adjoining the agricultural school and began clearing and leveling the land in preparation for the building. The joy was back in their eyes.

In the weeks that followed, letters arriving from relatives and friends in New York described what had transpired there in those four endless days in which the village had awaited the Rebbe's reply.

For the entire month of Nissan, the month of the redemption, it is the Rebbe's custom to devote himself entirely to the service of the Creator, reducing his contact with his Chassidim to a minimum. Rare is the individual who is granted an audience with the Rebbe in this period, and all but the most urgent correspondence is postponed until the close of the auspicious month.

When the month of Nissan ends, a festive farbrengen (Chassidic gathering) is held at the Rebbe's headquarters on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, marking the Rebbe's resumption of his involvement with his thousands of followers across the globe. The Rebbe speaks for hours, his talks interspersed with bouts of song and l'chaims, often until the wee hours of the morning.

That year, the farbrengen marking the close of Nissan was also held. The tragic news from the Holy Land had arrived in New York moments before the farbrengen was scheduled to begin, but the Rebbe's secretaries decided to withhold the news from him until after the gathering. But what his assistants did not tell him, his heart seems to have told him. That night, the Rebbe spoke of Jewish self-sacrifice and martyrdom al kiddush Hashem (for the sanctification of G-d's name), about the rebuilding of the Holy Land, and the redemption of Israel. Tears flowed from his eyes as he spoke. All night he spoke and wept, sang and wept, and wept still more.

Why is the Rebbe weeping? Only a few of those present could guess-those who knew about the telegram from Kfar Chabad.

The farbrengen ended. The chassidim dispersed to their homes, and the Rebbe retired to his room. With great trepidation, two of the Rebbe's closest chassidim knocked on the Rebbe's door and handed him the telegram from Israel. The Rebbe sank into his chair. He locked his door and did not open it for three days. After three days of utter seclusion, he called his secretary and dictated his reply: Behemshech habinyan tinacheimu. By your continued building you will be comforted.

The chassidim of Kfar Chabad have fulfilled their Rebbe's request. Without the aid of philanthropists or foundations, they have raised 50,000 Israeli pounds, and today, one year after the tragedy, the new building of the vocational school is completed.

Tomorrow, as the citizens of Israel celebrate their eighth Independence Day, the chassidim of Kfar Chabad will hold a farbrengen and relate, again and again, the story of the three-word telegram that saved the village.

Initial Israeli Government Reaction to the Massacre in Mumbai (below)

FM Livni condemns Mumbai terror attacks

27 Nov 2008

This is further painful evidence that the terrorist threat is the greatest challenge which Israel and the international community have to face.

Rabbi Gavriel

and Rivka Holtzberg (ZT'L HY'D)

Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Tzipi Livni spoke a short time ago (Thursday, 27 November 2008) with the Israel Consul General in Mumbai, who briefed her on last night's events.

The minister was informed that the events are still ongoing and all of the details are not yet known. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the consulate are making maximum efforts to ascertain the situation of the Israelis in the city as quickly as possible. The Ministry is concerned and closely following the developments.

FM Livni stated this morning, "I condemn this criminal terrorist attack that is still going on in Mumbai. This is further painful evidence that the terrorist threat is the greatest challenge which Israel and the international community have to face. Nothing justifies the unforgivable slaughter of innocents; it is therefore incumbent on the international community to cooperate in the ongoing war against this contemptible, heinous manifestation of terror.

I would like to convey my sincere condolences to the families of the victims. Our thoughts and prayers are with the government and people of India."


Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Tzipi Livni spoke this afternoon (Thursday, 27 November 2008) with Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Kumar Mukherjee. FM Livni condemned the violent attacks in Mumbai and was briefed by FM Mukherjee on the current situation. FM Livni offered the Indian government any assistance it might require to cope with the situation and its aftermath.

FM Livni also requested the assistance of FM Mukherjee, and the assistance of his Ministry, in the communication of any relevant information regarding developments in Mumbai to the Israeli authorities and assistance in the evacuation of Israelis from the terrorist attack sites if required.

"Israel, India and the rest of the free world are positioned in the forefront of the battle against terrorism and extremists. Unfortunately, we were harshly reminded of this once again yesterday. The struggle against terror must be a communal struggle, and compels us to improve our cooperation on this front. Israel is ready to assist India in any way possible.

And from Arlene Kushner's Blog....

November 29, 2008

Motzei Shabbat (After Shabbat)

"When Words Fail"

I was prepared on Thursday night to do a posting, but the news from Mumbai stopped me cold. There seemed so little to say, as word was awaited regarding the fate of the people in the Chabad House.

Well, now we know, and it is time to mourn, and to rant, and to respond with strength. Let it be clearly understood that the Chabad House was targeted by radical Muslims because of its Israeli/Jewish association. This was hardly random.
Along with at least six other Israelis (and close to 200 others killed elsewhere in the city), Rabbi Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg, who ran this Chabad House, have been murdered cruelly. They established the Mumbai Chabad Jewish Center five years ago. It has been a popular stopping place for Israelis tourists as well as for other Jews from all over the world. What wasn't provided there? Shabbat hospitality, a Jewish library, classes, hospital visitation, a kosher meal plan, brit milah (ritual circumcision) arrangements, chevreh kadisha (care for the dead), outreach, drug prevention programs, etc. etc.

Rabbi Nochum Light, serving as the Chabad rabbi in Annapolis, MD, who was a lifelong friend of Rabbi Holtzberg, said, "He died doing something that was his mission. His favorite thing was to make this world a happier and better place. All he wanted to do was help people."

Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, the vice-chairman of Chabad's educational arm said, "Gabi and Rivky Holtzberg made the ultimate sacrifice. 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 business people."


Chabad of Mumbai has established an appeal to benefit the young children of Rabbi Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg [a 2-year old, Moshe -- whose birthday was today!! -- was rescued by his nanny; there is one other child but I have no information on this child] and to rebuild Chabad in Mumbai.

This is altogether fitting.

Rivka Holtzberg's parents, Shimon and Yehudit Rosenberg, flew from Israel to Mumbai Thursday night. They must now return with their orphaned grandson and his parents' bodies. Every terrorist attack is to be deplored, every victim mourned. But this is one of those incidents that truly tears the heart. That they should have some assistance is appropriate, a small blessing in a time of unimaginable pain.

And the Mumbai Chabad Jewish Center? I like the attitude of Andrew Benjamin, who called my attention to this fund. We must fight back, he says, and doing this is the best way. We must celebrate the rebuilding of this institution. We must survive and prevail.

It is appropriate to do tzedaka in the memory of the Holtzbergs. That their beloved Center should be assisted would have pleased them enormously. But if not that, consider some other act of charity or kindness in their memory. Some act that will make the world a "happier or better place."

Should you wish to donate to the Chabad Mumbai Fund:


Everything else will wait yet another day. There will be more to say about Mumbai, undoubtedly, and a great many other issues. I note here, which is a matter of considerable significance, that Westerners and in particular Americans and British were targeted by the Mumbai terrorists.

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