NEW YORK (JTA) — Until confirmation finally came that the Chabad emissaries in Mumbai were among the more than 170 victims killed in this week’s terrorist attacks in India, Chabad Chasidim and emissaries the world over prayed for the best while fearing for the worst.
By the morning of Nov. 28, the hostage standoff at the Chabad’s Nariman House was over some two days after it had begun.
Early that day, witnesses saw a series of explosions at the community center as Indian special forces stormed the site and battled with the gunmen who had taken over the house — one of 10 sites in the city attacked Nov. 26 by terrorists.
When the smoke had cleared, the bodies of five hostages were found, including those of the couple that ran the center, Rabbi Gavriel and Rivkah Holtzberg.
At a Nov. 28 news conference at Chabad world headquarters in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, N.Y., the mood was one of shock and grief.
“This news is fresh and this news is raw,” the chairman of Chabad’s education and social services arm, Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, told reporters. New York Police Department Commissioner Raymond Kelly also attended the news conference.
Chabad has more than 3,500 emissaries, known as schluchim, who run Jewish outreach centers around the world. The centers began to be established at the behest of the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
Those who knew the Holtzbergs — Gavriel, 29, and Rivkah, 28 — spoke of them as highly dedicated to the Chabad mission of spreading Judaism to Jews around the globe. The couple moved from Brooklyn to Mumbai in 2003 at the urging of Chabad’s leadership. Their apartment in Colaba, in the southern part of Mumbai, quickly became a hub both for Jews traveling in India — many of them Israeli backpackers traveling in the country following their service in the Israeli army — and for those living in India.
“Jews from all nationalities stopped there — primarily Israelis, but also those from Singapore and other places,” said Elijah Jacob, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s country manager for India. “It was almost like a second home to them. Our country director used to say it was like a second home to him because of all of the Jews there on Shabbat.”
Gavriel “was one of the finest and kindest gentlemen you could imagine,” said Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, the vice chairman of Chabad’s education arm. He recounted the last conversation Gavriel had with the Israeli Embassy, on the night of Nov. 26, shortly after the center was taken over by the terrorists.
“He said, ‘The situation is not good,’ ” Kotlarsky recalled. “And then he was cut off.”
News of the Holtzbergs’ deaths hit hard in the Lubavitch neighborhood of Crown Heights, where tens of thousands of Chabadniks live. In this tight-knit community, nearly everyone is connected to one another.
“It is painful to see,” Rabbi Velvel Farkash said outside of Chabad-Lubavitch headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway. “It is a deep pain. I really have no words for it.”
Jacob described Gavriel Holtzberg as a community builder in Mumbai, home to some 4,500 Jews living in a western Indian city of 14 million. The city has eight synagogues, mostly in the southern part in predominantly Muslim neighborhoods.
“[Gavriel] helped out with some of the local synagogues. He helped them collect donations and did fund-raising for the synagogue T’feret Israel, in central Mumbai in Jacobs Circle. He helped build a mikveh there,” Jacob, who grew up in India, told JTA.
“He was also officially a shochet [ritual slaughterer] and made chickens available to the community. They also made challah for the community. They were available for the community. If people had questions about halachic principles, what is right and what is wrong in terms of the rights and customs of Judaism, they were basically guiding the local community.”
On Nov. 27, the day after terrorists took over the Chabad House, the gunmen released the Holtzbergs’ 2-year-old son, Moishe, and the building’s cook, Sandra Samuel, who reported that the Chabad emissaries were alive but unconscious. The Holtzbergs have another son who was not in the center when it was captured.
Krinsky said Chabad would take care of Moishe.
“The world of Chabad-Lubavitch and its emissaries will adopt this beautiful toddler, and raise him and give him a beautiful upbringing,” Krinsky said at the news conference.
On the morning of Nov. 28, as reports spread that five of the hostages being held at the Chabad house were dead, Erin Beser was holding out hope that the Chabad emissaries were not among them.
Beser, who spent a year in Mumbai as a volunteer for the JDC, said she spent nearly every Shabbat at the Chabad house during her time in India.
“I was by myself in India for two months as a volunteer,” Beser said. “And in India, your week is just so stressful and foreign, and everything is different, from the food to the climate. But going to Chabad was just like coming home. And I came back every week. If I didn’t come one week, she would call.”
Unlike other Chabad houses in the Far East, which see a steady stream of Israeli backpackers, the Nariman House catered more to Israeli and foreign businessmen. A typical Shabbat dinner at the Holtzbergs would include up to 50 guests, ranging from locals to the Israeli consul general and his family, Beser said.
“They were so committed to what they were doing and they were such good people,” Beser said of the Holtzbergs. “They were so welcoming. It was amazing how many people came through that house. And still she was like, ‘How was your week?’ and was able to hold all of this information about what I was doing.”