NEW YORK – Until confirmation finally came Friday that the Chabad emissaries in Mumbai were among the more than 140 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.
But by Friday morning, the hostage standoff at Mumbai’s Chabad House was over. Early Friday, witnesses saw a series of explosions at the Chabad House as Indian special forces stormed the site and battled with the gunmen who had taken over the community center, one of 10 sites attacked Wednesday by terrorist gunmen in Mumbai.
When the smoke cleared, the bodies of five hostages were found, including those of the couple that ran the center, Rabbi Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg.
At a news conference at Chabad world headquarters on Friday in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, New York, 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 around the world – known as shluchim – who run Jewish outreach centers. The centers first began to be set up at the behest of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
Those who knew Gavriel Holtzberg, 29, and Rivka, 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 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 IDF — and for those living in India.
“Jews from all nationalities stopped there — primarily Israelis, but also those from Singapore and other places. It was almost like a second home to them,” said Elijah Jacob, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s country manager for India. “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,” the vice chairman of Chabad’s education arm, Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, said. He recounted the last conversation Gavriel had with the Israeli Embassy, on Wednesday night, shortly after the center was taken over by the terrorists. “He said, ‘The situation is not good,’” recalled Kotlarsky. “And then he was cut off.”
News of the Holtzbergs’ deaths hit hard here in the Lubavitch neighborhood of Crown Heights, where tens of thousands of Chabadniks live. It’s a tight-knit community, where nearly everyone is connected to each other and strangers are hard to come by.
“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.
There are eight synagogues in the city. Most are in the southern part of Mumbai, 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 mikvah there,” Jacob, who grew up in India, told JTA. “He was also officially a shochet, 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 what is wrong in terms of the rights and customs of Judaism, they were basically guiding the local community.”
On Thursday, a day after terrorists took over the Chabad House, they 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 the couple’s toddler. “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 Friday’s news conference in Brooklyn.
On Friday morning, 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 JDC, said she spent nearly every Shabbat at the Mumbai 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 Chabad house in Mumbai 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.”