Mumbai Mourns Slain Rabbi, Wife
Prayer Service Honors Couple Held Hostage During 3-Day Siege

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 2, 2008

MUMBAI, Dec. 1 -- Outside the ornate synagogue, Indian sharpshooters were perched on rooftops and Israeli security agents roamed the alleys in this busy neighborhood, just a 15-minute walk from the devastated Taj Mahal Palace & Tower hotel.

Inside, a weeping Shimon Rosenberg cradled his grandson, curly-haired 2-year-old Moshe Holtzberg. The toddler was left an orphan after his parents -- a rabbi and his wife -- were slain in a Jewish outreach center in Mumbai, part of a three-day siege that ended Saturday, leaving at least 174 people dead and hundreds injured in targeted attacks across this seaport city.

"Ima! Ima! Ima!" the boy cried out, using the Hebrew word for mother, at a tear-filled prayer service attended by about 100 mourners, including Indian Jews, officials from the U.S and Israeli embassies, aging Holocaust survivors and streams of Israeli backpackers.

Rivkah Holtzberg, 28, was an Israeli citizen, while her husband, Rabbi Gavriel Noach Holtzberg, 29, had dual American and Israeli citizenship. They had come to Mumbai in August 2003 to operate a home for the Jewish community, one where travelers could get a kosher meal, attend Shabbat services, and relax in a library lined with a variety of works, including books by Woody Allen and tomes on Jewish philosophy.

"The house they built here in Mumbai will live with them. They were the mother and father, the address of the Jewish community in Mumbai," Rosenberg said through tears. "The House of Chabad will live again. We have to rebuild."

Jews have a long history in India. Rabbinical leaders have accepted a community of Jewish Indians as being among the "lost tribes" of Israel, exiled by an Assyrian empire 27 centuries ago. Today, India and Israel are emerging allies: India is one of Israel's biggest trading partners in Asia, with the countries exchanging cars, software and weaponry. India is also a favorite destination for Israeli backpackers seeking a break from disciplined and stressful army life. They wind their way through the northern Himalayan hamlets and the southwestern beachfronts in Goa, among India's more easygoing venues. When they want a dose of South Asian bustle, they come to Mumbai, India's largest city.

But to Indians and Israelis, the two countries also have another bond: They have a common enemy. Civilians in both countries have been targeted by Islamist terrorists.

The service for the Holtzbergs was among the most visible symbols Monday of a city still reeling from one of India's deadliest attacks in recent years. Even as the service was held, an FBI team armed with cameras and dust masks picked through wreckage at the grenade-charred Taj Mahal hotel. The agents will investigate how six Americans were killed, Rabbi Holtzberg among them.

Speaking in London, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Monday that American and British citizens had been "singled out" for attack by the assailants. Officials in Washington, meanwhile, said they had independently corroborated Indian intelligence that links the attacks to Lashkar-i-Taiba, a Pakistan-based extremist group with roots in the disputed Kashmir region.

"There are real indications that point toward [Lashkar], and they are based on more than what the Indians have made public," said a U.S. counterterrorism official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The official said, however, that there was no evidence that the Pakistani government had played a role in the attacks.

It is not known how the attackers seized on the low-key Chabad House, along with high-profile hotels and a train station, as one of their 10 targets.

The Holtzbergs were emissaries of the Chabad Lubavitch branch of Judaism, an ultra-Orthodox sect with headquarters in New York's Crown Heights neighborhood. The adherents are famous for asking passersby, "Are you Jewish?" -- reaching out to secular Jews in an attempt to make them more observant. There are about 73 Chabad centers around the world, including in Mumbai. "We have always loved India because they always accepted us," said Nahum Lauifer, 89, who lived in Mumbai as a child after escaping Nazi Germany. "We can't believe that this has happened in a place that we thought was so safe."

Lauifer's lifelong dream was to return to Mumbai to retrace his memories. But moments after his plane landed last week, Israeli officials met him at the airport, warning him about the attacks.

The Holtzbergs had been fixtures of Mumbai's small Jewish community. They had come to the city after stints in Israel and New York.

"I lost my friend," said a weeping Reema Sisodia, an Indian Jew, adding that she went to a mikvah, a ritual bath, with Rivkah Holtzberg on the Sunday before the attacks. A few weeks before, Rivkah Holtzberg had given her a mezuza, a piece of parchment affixed to the door frame of Jewish homes. "When I saw her last, she was happy," Sisodia said. "They were planning a big Friday dinner. People like her should not have to die like that. It is high time the world wakes up and takes notice."

Although some Israeli officials have criticized India's handling of the siege, the prayer service Monday was a moment of bonding between the countries.

The mourners praised Sandra Samuel, the Indian nanny who rescued Moshe. She found him crying beside his parents' bodies, his pants drenched in blood.

During the siege of the Jewish center, Samuel had locked herself in a laundry room. As soon as she heard Rivkah Holtzberg screaming "Sandra, help!," family friends said, she bounded up one flight of stairs -- only to see the bodies of the rabbi and his wife; they had been shot. She picked up Moshe and ran out of the building before the attackers noticed she was gone.

After the service, Samuel left for Israel with Moshe on an Israeli military aircraft. Some at the service said Samuel should get a hero's welcome in Israel.

"She was an angel, and Moshe loves her," said Levi Jurkowicz, 25, whose sister and brother-in-law work at a Chabad center in Goa.

Jurkowicz, like many at the memorial service, seemed eager to resurrect Mumbai's Chabad House, also known as Nariman House. He had spent the past few days cooking kosher meals for dozens of Israelis who had arrived to mourn and help prepare the bodies.

"We want to rebuild it, stone by stone, exactly the way it was in their memory," he said. "That would be the best way to fight the terrorists."

In the meantime, the temporary Chabad House is in an undisclosed location.

Staff writers Joby Warrick and Karen DeYoung and staff researcher Robert E. Thomason, all in Washington, contributed to this report.

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