Saturday, August 30, 2014

Mumbai Jewish centre reopens after 2008 terror attack 

With a cantor singing a benediction, more than two dozen black-hatted rabbis from around the world arrived here this week to reopen a Jewish centre attacked and gutted during a 2008 killing rampage by Pakistani militants.

Men from Chabad-Lubavitch, a New York-based Hasidic group, carried a large Torah scroll into the building to officially mark the centre's rebirth and memorialize Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife, Rivka Holtzberg, who along with four guests were killed during the 60-hour siege. More than 160 people were killed in the Mumbai attacks when armed men trained by Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistani militant group, alighted from boats and stormed two hotels, a railroad station, restaurant and hospital, along with the Jewish centre.

"For reasons we will never know and never fathom, six pious people along with 158 others were torn from our grasp in the most barbaric and inhuman of ways," Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice chair of Merkos L'lnyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, said during the ceremony. "Today, we fulfil a promise which was made at the funeral of Rabbi Gabi that we would rebuild."

The seven-storey centre will include a $2.5-million museum, yet to be completed, that will be the first in Mumbai to memorialize all of those killed in the attacks. One of the centre's floors will be left raw, with pockmarks and blast holes behind glass barriers to remind visitors of the devastation.

On another floor, designers intend to rebuild the Holtzbergs' simple apartment, including its kitchen and living room, to show Indians how Orthodox Jews live. Signs in the kitchen, for instance, will explain the tenets of kosher cooking.

"The point is to show Indians that these people are not that distant from them," said Nick Appelbaum of Ralph Appelbaum Associates, which designed the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. "It will be Jewish life explained."

Jews have been in India for thousands of years, but their numbers have dwindled. So while Mumbai may be one of the most colourful cities in the world, with a populace sporting a kaleidoscope of turbans and topis, saris and kameezes, Indian media and spectators greeted the fedora and tzitzit-wearing Hasidim on Tuesday with open-mouthed wonder. Bemused rabbis were trailed through the centre by packs of photographers as if they were Bollywood royalty.

Missing from the ceremony was Moshe Holtzberg, the Holtzbergs' seven-year-old son. Moshe was rescued during the attack by his Indian nanny, Sandra Samuel, who snatched up the blood-soaked toddler and dashed outside during the siege. Moshe and Samuel are still living in Israel at Moshe's grandparents' house, and counsellors deemed the trip inappropriate for him, rabbis said.

The centre's reconstruction was delayed by India's vast red tape and a court battle in Mumbai between the Holtzbergs' parents and the Chabad-Lubavitch order over who controlled the property. The two sides dropped the case in 2011, with the organization assuming stewardship and George Rohr, a New York financier, paying for the rebuilding.

The attack on the Jewish centre was the last piece put together by Lashkar-e-Taiba and the subject of the most heated debates within the group and its affiliates, according to Adrian Levy, co-author of The Siege, a book about the attacks, who interviewed Lashkar cadres and military sources in Pakistan.

The Lashkar leaders most closely associated with the Pakistani government worried that attacking the Jewish centre would earn the enmity of the United States, which had largely ignored the group. But others wanted to expand the group's mission beyond attacking India to attract support from the larger jihadist community, and attacking Jews did that, Levy said. The militants were eventually told by trainers that "the lives of Jews were worth 50 times those of non-Jews," according to the Indian police.

The two teenage militants who attacked the Jewish centre, also known as Nariman House, were among the last to be killed by Indian commandos in part because the house is situated in a crowded alley whose residents refused evacuation. Commandos eventually dropped into the house from a helicopter hovering above, and one Indian commando was killed in the raid.

Rabbis of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement said that the centre never closed but simply moved to a series of temporary locations. A Shabbat dinner was served the very night of the commando raid in 2008 and every Friday since, they said.

There are more than 4,000 such centres in 80 countries, including nearly 1,000 in cities throughout North America.

Rabbi Israel Kozlovsky and his wife, Chaya Kozlovsky, are the group's current representatives in Mumbai. The centre hosts local Jews, expatriate executives, travelling business people and backpackers who want a place to pray, study or eat a kosher meal.

Kozlovsky said that the 2008 attack did not deter him from moving to India from Israel. He pointed out that the attackers were all Pakistanis, and he said that India has far less overt anti-Semitism than Europe.

India has the world's second-largest population of Muslims, and while radical Islam is rare here, there are signs that its presence may be growing.

Kotlarsky, a bear of a man with a long white beard, said the reopening was a deeply emotional moment for him because he had sent Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife to India and counselled them weekly.

"We are not going to be intimidated by acts of terror," Kotlarsky said, his voice rising. "It will only spur us to spread more light and more kindness and goodness in the world."


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