Many things must have crossed Rabbi Gabi and Rivky Holtzberg’s minds when they set out for Mumbai, India, in 2003. The city where they would plant their roots and establish a new Chabad center was far from New York and Israel, where their families lived. It was big and messy, and a culture unlike anything they knew. Their task, to build a warm Jewish home to share with everyone they encountered in India, was a heady one, but at least they had no reason to worry about security since India had always been a safe haven for Jews.
The Bene Israel Indian Jews have lived in peace in India for millennia. A few hundred years ago they were joined by the so-called Baghdadi Jews, victims of anti-Jewish actions in their native Muslim lands, who fled for the distance and safety of India. These new arrivals became active and influential members of Indian society, erecting monumental synagogues for themselves and public works for their new home. While their numbers dwindled in the 20th century as Jews emigrated out of India, it was not anti-Semitism that caused them to leave.
It was Mumbai’s overpopulation that became one of the Holtzbergs’ first obstacles. The city is India’s business capital, and Gabi and Rivky’s new Chabad center became a popular destination for Jewish businesspeople, as well as tourists, NGO employees, and volunteers—a welcoming presence in the midst of the unfamiliar. At first the couple worked out of a three-star hotel but quickly outgrew it and Gabi took the lead on finding a new place. Because of Mumbai’s crushing shortage of space, he found it almost impossible to find a suitable rental.