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Brandeis students honor rabbi, extend ties to India

Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife, Rivkah, were among the victims of the November terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India. Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife, Rivkah, were among the victims of the November terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India.
By Julie Masis
Globe Correspondent / February 5, 2009

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WALTHAM - A group formed by South Asian students at Brandeis University is raising money to start a scholarship named after a rabbi and his wife who were murdered in the terrorist attacks in Mumbai three months ago.

The goal of the Rabbi Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg Scholarship for Peace, the first Brandeis grant aimed specifically at residents of India, will be to bring a Mumbai student from a low-income background to study at the traditionally Jewish university, organizers said.

The students have formed an initiative, called "Revive Mumbai," and raised close to $4,000 for the scholarship, while organizing their activities on a blog and on a Facebook group with more than 300 members. To raise money, they hosted a dinner and sold T-shirts with the words "Revive Mumbai" written in Arabic, Hebrew, English, and Hindi.

The university's chapter of Hillel, a Jewish student organization, is sponsoring "Mitzvah for Mumbai" on March 29 in the Sherman Function Hall on the Waltham campus. (Mitzvah is Hebrew for a good deed.) All proceeds will be donated to the scholarship.

The initiative was started by Naman Pugalia, 21, a Brandeis senior from Mumbai who lost a close family friend in the November terrorist attacks, which killed more than 170 people. As much as he felt the loss of a man he considered a father figure, Pugalia said, he was also spurred to act by the deaths, including the Holtzbergs, at a Jewish center that was among the targets in the attacks.

"Being on a predominantly Jewish campus, seeing what happened at Chabad House affected me deeply," he said.

Carrying a banner with signatures from Brandeis students and faculty, Pugalia recently traveled to Mumbai and met with the new Chabad House rabbi. He also attended a Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony.

At the Brandeis Chabad House, Rabbi Peretz Chein, whose sister's brother-in-law was a classmate of the murdered rabbi and who grew up in the same Brooklyn community, said he was humbled and moved when he learned of the scholarship.

"I think it's an extraordinary initiative that the students undertook," he said. "The fact that they're naming it after Rabbi Holtzberg is an indicator of their understanding of the commitment that the rabbi displayed toward assisting other people."

The students recently wrote a letter to Chabad Lubavitch headquarters in New York, in which they explained the Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg Scholarship and asked the Jewish religious organization to help publicize the scholarship and make donations to support it.

In their letter, the students also said that they would like to volunteer in the reconstruction of the Chabad House in Mumbai. "Since we're a predominantly Jewish campus, we should think about reconstructing the Chabad House," Pugalia said.

Chein said he isn't sure whether Chabad needs assistance with rebuilding the Mumbai center, but the students' willingness to help is "a very commendable act."

"I'm certain that the suggestion is very welcome," he said.

While the student-run Revive Mumbai initiative will work to increase volunteer opportunities for Brandeis students in India, the university has put its plans for an outreach program on hold.

Bryan McAllister-Grande, assistant director of the university's office of global affairs, said Brandeis had been planning to place students into internships in Mumbai over the summer, but the terrorist attacks prompted a postponement.

"We were meeting about that program on the day the attacks happened and we decided to delay it," he said.

Still, the office made an undisclosed donation to the Revive Mumbai initiative.

"The recognition of the Chabad rabbi is a reflection of their experience here at Brandeis, where Indian students have come to know Jewish students and understand more about the Jewish community," said Daniel Terris, the university's associate vice president of global affairs.

For more information about the initiative, go to www.revivemumbai.wordpress.com.

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