Post-Mumbai, Chabad Scrambling On Security


As the Chabad movement mourns the shocking murders of two of its emissaries and four visitors in Mumbai, India, other representatives of the international Jewish outreach movement from Costa Rica to South Korea to Long Island are scrambling to review security procedures and put into place new protective measures.

Rabbi Osher Litzman, the Chabad representative of the recently opened Chabad House in Seoul, South Korea, told The Jewish Week that security for the Jewish community has always been very tight and will only get stronger post-Mumbai.

“We opened eight months ago and receive advice from the Israeli embassy. We plan to discuss security this coming Sunday,” Rabbi Litzman said.

“Chabad Houses all over the world are committed to the best security, and even though the financial crisis has meant that Chabad’s supporters cannot contribute as much as they would like, security is a top priority,” the rabbi continued.

Rabbi Tuvia Teldon, director of Chabad Lubavitch on Long Island, said several of his centers have already met with police to discuss security needs.

“All of us have dealt with the security issue before, and most of the rabbis will be reappraising security now,” Rabbi Teldon told The Jewish Week.

“They are well aware of the issue,” he continued. “A couple of rabbis said the police have visited their centers — such as the one in Southampton that has a high visibility. Some are more visible and public and open than others. They are doing whatever needs to be done to adapt to the realities of the day.”

Meanwhile, amid calls this week for the Israeli government to protect Chabad Houses around the world, officials of Chabad Lubavitch in Crown Heights are tight-lipped about what steps they’ll take to secure nearly 3,000 centers in 74 countries in a world increasingly consumed by terrorism.

“Security is not something we’re going to talk about publicly,” said Chabad spokesman Zalman Shmotkin. “The very nature of security precludes such a discussion. But Lubavitch will always be there for all Jews in all corners of the world, and that’s all I have to say.”

Shmotkin added that, “We work closely with security experts which, of course, includes periodically reviewing strategies together.”

On Friday, Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, a top Chabad leader in Crown Heights, urged his emissaries to “keep strong and continue to forge ahead with courage and fortitude in the service of our people and mankind,” but did not address how the organization would protect its outposts and their visitors.

“It’s clear that we don’t want our Chabad Houses to turn into barricaded forts,” Rabbi Menachem Brod, the Chabad spokesman in Israel told The Jerusalem Post. “The whole idea of Chabad is that we are open and accessible to Jews traveling abroad. Besides, it is doubtful that security would have helped in this case. The hotels that were attacked had security.”

As the bodies of Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife Rivkah were laid to rest in Israel on Tuesday — six days after terrorists took over their outreach center in Mumbai, India, ultimately killing the Holtzbergs and four other Jews, among more than 170 killed in two days of carnage in the city — questions loomed about how the murders will impact an organization that prides itself on open doors.

“You want to have a welcoming atmosphere, but at the same time you need to have a level of security that keeps this kind of thing from happening,” said Yehudit Barsky, counterterrorism expert for the American Jewish Committee.

At Chabad centers around the world this week, emissaries, known as shluchim, combined mourning with taking stock of their own potential vulnerability.

Chana Spalter, who with her husband, Rabbi Hershel Spalter, has represented Chabad in Costa Rica for the past 19 years, said local Jewish community members are discussing the need for heightened security. She said that Costa Rica’s 4,000 to 5,000 Jews feel secure, “although over the years there have been some instances of anti-Semitism.”

Rabbi Mordechai Abergel, who has spent the past 15 years in Singapore, said, “Obviously security is a serious concern and it’s costly, but there isn’t an alternative.” About 1,000 Jews live on the Southeast Asian island state.

The new reality will affect not only Chabad, but also other Jewish organizations around the world and in the U.S., which has already seen attacks on Jews in recent years at a Seattle Jewish federation building, a community center near Los Angeles and an El Al ticket counter at the Los Angeles airport.

“As a result of [Mumbai], any Jewish organization that is trying to attract people anywhere in the world is going to be reassessing security measures to see what’s going to keep people from doing surveillance,” said Barsky.

Last week was not the first time Chabad has suffered the wrath of terrorists. In 1994 a Lebanese-born gunman targeted a van full of yeshiva students on the Brooklyn Bridge, killing one and injuring three, and in 1956, five children and one teacher were murdered by Arabs in their school in Kfar Chabad, the Lubavitch enclave near Lod, Israel.

If anything, such incidents further galvanize Chabadniks by reinforcing their drive to change the world and bring about its redemption through good deeds that will bring the Messiah, as instructed by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994.

“After Kfar Chabad, the rebbe said that while you continue rebuilding, you will be comforted,” said Rabbi Levi Hodukov, a Chabad emissary in South Florida who runs the Shmais News Service, focused on Lubavitch life. “Everyone is focusing on the positive, filling the world with goodness and kindness and more programs to reach people to do good things.”

Rabbi Hodukov said that about 60 people showed up to a memorial service at his center in Palm Harbor and signed a sheet promising good deeds in the name of the Holtzbergs.

If there were to be any changes in security policy, he said, “I don’t think they are going to broadcast them. It’s something that will be discussed discreetly at headquarters.”

The Mumbai center was an attractive target to the terrorists because it drew Jewish business travelers and a large number of Israeli backpackers who travel through Asia after their army service. The sole gunman captured by Indian authorities, Azam Amir Kasab, 21, said his group was specifically ordered to kill Israelis, according to the Times of India.

In addition to the Holztbergs, the other victims at the Chabad center were identified as Rabbi Leibish Teitelbaum of Jerusalem and Bentzion Chroman, both Americans living in Israel and Yocheved Orpaz, of Givatayim, Israel, who was visiting her daughter and grandchildren in India. The sixth victim was Norma Shvarzblat Rabinovich, 70, a Jewish woman from Mexico (see story on page 13.)

A previously unknown organization, the Deccan Mujahadeen, claimed responsibility for the attacks in an e-mail to media organizations.

U.S. and Indian officials are exploring evidence that the attackers are tied to Lashkar-e-Taiba, or “army of the pure,” a Pakistan-based militant group loyal to separatists in Kashmir, a region controlled by India.
Kashmir is a popular tourist destination for Israelis. In 1991, Kashmir rebels captured a group of Israeli tourists, killing one before they freed themselves.

Israel and India also have growing military and intelligence ties, with India purchasing an estimated $8 billion worth of equipment from Israel in recent years.

“There have been reports [Lashkar-e-Taiba] has connections to al-Qaeda and have used their training camps,” said Barsky. “But at this point the Indian government doesn’t have information on each of the terrorists. They are only getting it from the one who was captured.” Barsky noted that while Lashkar-e-Taiba has been outlawed by Pakistan, the country is seen as reluctant to take out its training camps in northwest Pakistan and President George W. Bush recently reserved the right for American forces to strike at them without Pakistani approval.

Evidence was emerging this week that the Mumbai perpetrators had visited the site before the attack and that Rabbi Holtzberg had feared precisely such a scenario. The center, Nariman House, may have rented rooms to non-Jewish students in order to offset expenses.

Accordingly, an advisory council to Israel’s Chief Rabbinate this week called on the Israeli government to protect Chabad houses worldwide, and Israeli security officials told the Jerusalem Post that they are advising Chabad to move operations from independent structures to secured buildings.

But coming up with the money to secure thousands of centers, in addition to their own embassies, consulates and other facilities, may prove too much of a strain at a time of global economic recession.

“Israel is suffering from its own downturn and facing budget cuts,” said Barsky. “This is not even a government organization. Israelis travel all over the world. The question is, how far do you go to protect them?”

Compounding matters is that some of Chabad’s biggest contributors — Israeli billionaire Lev Leviev and New York businessman George Rohr — have seen their fortunes fall in the economic downturn.

The attack in Mumbai comes just weeks after a New York-based organization, the Secure Community Network, hosted a daylong “desktop exercise” for 30 participating Jewish institutions to develop contingency plans for such an attack.

“We simulated multiple scenarios for different geographical locations of the country,” said Richard Marks, assistant director of SCN, which is managed by 10 Jewish organizations. “It brought together leaders of our community with senior members of government and law enforcement in a forward-thinking forum.”

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said that while it was unlikely the same group that acted in Mumbai would eye targets in the U.S., “it raises the danger of copycatting.”

He added that while concern is always heightened immediately following high-profile incidents, the danger is in later complacency.

“I urge the organizations and institutions not to let the concern they feel now dissipate,” said Hoenlein. “There are things that can be done for a lot of money, things that can be done for less money and things that can even be done for no money.”

For example, he said, a Jewish day school in England requires all parents to volunteer one half-day a year for guard duty. “The presence of someone at an institution can make a difference. An adult sitting there can see someone who is suspicious and report it. A camera can’t do that.”

With reporting from Israel correspondent Michele Chabin, staff writer Stewart Ain and JTA.