NOVEMBER 28, 2008, 9:18 P.M. ET
A Tragic End at Chabad House
Unlike Tightly Guarded Embassies, Mumbai Jewish Center Was a Soft TargetBy YAROSLAV TROFIMOV and SHEFALI ANAND
MUMBAI — Until a few days ago, the Chabad House in Mumbai’s Colaba district was known mainly to the city’s tiny Jewish community, and to the many Israeli backpackers who travel through town.
Now, it’s become a tragic symbol of the death and destruction wrought by Islamist militants on this Indian metropolis.
At the terrorists’ two other main targets, the Taj and Oberoi hotels, many hostages died but most either managed to escape or were eventually rescued by Indian commandos. By contrast, the news emerging from Chabad House is unremittingly bleak: As Indian soldiers battled their way into the building on Friday night, they found no survivors inside.
The Brooklyn-based Chabad-Lubavitch movement has confirmed the deaths of 29-year-old Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, a dual U.S.-Israeli citizen, and of his Israeli wife Rivka, 28, who jointly ran the center.
An Israeli official said that, in addition to the couple, the fatalities at Chabad House are believed to include two Israeli kosher ritual inspectors and a visiting Israeli woman who happened to be inside when Islamist militants seized the building Wednesday night.
Positive identification of the victims remained impossible because fighting raged in parts of the five-story structure late into Friday night, said Eli Belotserkovsky, Israel’s deputy chief of mission in India. “There is still no access to the house itself,” he said. “But unfortunately we have very strong evidence — at this stage it seems the five bodies are Israeli.” He said it wasn’t clear whether the five hostages were killed early on in the standoff, or died during the rescue attempt.
The couple’s 2-year-old son, Moshe, escaped the center Thursday, with the building’s cook, Sandra Samuel. The couple has a second son who wasn’t at the center at the time and is also safe, Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky said Friday at a news conference at the movement’s world headquarters in Brooklyn.
Like similar Chabad Houses scattered throughout Asia, the Mumbai center focused on persuading Jews — especially the many young Israelis who backpack across India after their mandatory army service — to become more religiously observant. Established by the Holtzbergs two years ago, it provided kosher meals, a prayer hall, and Torah study, as well as a few guest rooms.
The Holtzbergs, who moved to Mumbai in 2003, “gave up the comforts of the West in order to spread Jewish pride in a corner of the world that was a frequent stop for throngs of Israeli tourists,” said Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of Chabad-Lubavitch.
Despite its tight connections with Israel, the Chabad House was a soft target — much easier to hit than tightly guarded Israeli diplomatic missions or the offices of Israel’s El Al airline. “Chabad has no official association with Israel, so they did not have any protection,” Mr. Belotserkovsky said. At the news conference in Brooklyn, Chabad representatives declined to discuss any security measures the organization is taking at its other centers in India. Rabbi Krinsky said, however, that the movement will continue its outreach work.
Shortly after the terrorist takeover of Chabad House, Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak offered the Indian government assistance in dealing with the attacks and the subsequent investigation. India so far hasn’t responded to the offer, Mr. Belotserkovsky said. India and Israel have strong defense cooperation ties, and India has long been a major buyer of Israeli weapons.
The tragedy at Chabad House — which had become a key part of Jewish life in the city — has raised fears among India’s tiny Jewish community. “I’m concerned about the safety of our people,” said Jonathon Solomon, chairman of the Mumbai-based Indian Jewish Federation. “Jews are an easy target.”
Community leaders are clamoring for strong government measures to shelter them against similar outrages in the future. “The Indian government should give protection and security to the Jews, as it is a microscopic community,” said Symond Dighodkar, secretary of Beth-El Synagogue in Mumbai.
Chabad House, in a crowded residential neighborhood with a large Muslim population, has been surrounded since early Thursday by Indian security forces. From the top of the building, the terrorists fired into adjoining streets, killing at least three civilians in the area, some of them Muslim.