By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 30, 2009
MUMBAI, Sept. 29 -- The only clue to what's inside this secret location is a small mezuza, a door ornament that traditionally marks a Jewish home. Nearby, Indian police officers with assault rifles stand guard near high iron gates.
This is Mumbai's new Chabad House, a Jewish center that keeps its whereabouts private after attacks here in November that left more than 170 people dead, including a rabbi and his wife. The center's address is given out only to Jews looking for a place to observe Friday night Sabbaths, eat a kosher meal or show solidarity after what happened last year.
Of those killed in the three-day siege, security experts said, Rabbi Gavriel Noach Holtzberg, 29, and his wife, Rivkah, 28, were probably the only ones singled out for execution. The young emissaries from the orthodox Jewish Chabad-Lubavitch movement were tortured and killed inside the old Chabad House, also known as Nariman House, during the attacks. Their 2-year-old son, Moshe, was dramatically rescued by his Indian nanny.
As Mumbai mourned for those killed in the attacks, the rabbi's father, cradling his orphaned grandchild at a prayer service, vowed that the Chabad House would rise again in the same spot. But that was not to be.
Daily life in Mumbai returned to normal in the days after the attacks, in which 10 gunmen working in teams of two struck at 10 sites, but many Jews and Israelis in Mumbai -- and across India-- are scared.
"We have had a beautiful life in India. We were always accepted," said Reema Sisodia, who was close friends with the rabbi's wife. "Now we have been shocked in the most brutal way. There is a lot of fear."
Any feeling of normalcy is a long way off for Mumbai's Jewish community. "It's a healing process," said Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz, director of the Chabad Mumbai Relief Fund, which raised money for Moshe's care. "But this is our tribute to them, to keep going, even if it's tough."
After a long search, a couple has been found to replace the Holtzbergs, whose portraits hang in the new Chabad House. But, for security reasons, the new rabbi and his wife asked not to be named.
"My parents do worry for me. And sometimes I am afraid to go outside," said the new rabbi's wife, a soft-spoken woman who was arranging a plate of kosher beef brought to her by a traveler from New York. "But they are also proud of us for coming."
In this seaside metropolis of 14 million, security gaps remain vast, Indian analysts say. They say Mumbai is almost impossible to police, given the size and skill of the police force, as well as the city's growth in the past decade.
Last week, the Israeli government warned of "imminent" terrorist strikes across India by Pakistan-based Lashkar-i-Taiba, an Islamist group accused by the Indian and U.S. governments in the November attacks. Israel's Counter-Terrorism Bureau recommended that Israelis and Jews in India avoid crowded areas -- an almost impossible task, especially in Mumbai, one of the world's most densely populated cities.
The travel warning came during the most holy month in the Jewish calendar, which includes Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, and Yom Kippur, a day of atonement with a 25-hour fast. After sunset Monday, members of the Chabad community in Mumbai broke their Yom Kippur fast quietly over apple-and-chocolate cakes and water.
The gathering was far smaller than in previous years, when the Nariman House hosted an array of guests: young Israeli backpackers looking for a break, American and Israeli businessmen, Jews from across the world on yoga or meditation retreats, along with some of the city's estimated 4,000 Jews.
Rescued from the bullet-scarred walls of the Nariman House was a painting of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the last living leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. The Lubavitch community has dispatched more than 4,000 husband-and-wife teams to run such Chabad centers in 73 countries, including in volatile ones such as Sri Lanka, Congo and Iraq.
In 2003, the Holtzbergs, newly married, opened the first Chabad center in Mumbai, one of 12 across India. The deeply religious Rabbi Holtzberg was seen as understanding and open toward young secular Israelis.
"They come to India to do everything the army didn't allow them to do," Holtzberg once wrote in an online journal, referring to young Israelis, who are required to join their country's armed forces for a certain amount of time. "Their shoes had to be polished and tied -- here they wear sandals. They had to cut their hair -- here they grow their hair long."
Today the Nariman House still looks like a war zone.
The Chabad-Lubavitch movement, which owns the building, is trying to figure out what to do with it. Its officials plan to hold a memorial there to mark the first anniversary of the attacks.
Israeli officials say it is an unsafe location, near narrow and dark alleys, where enemies could hide easily.
Over trays of braided challah bread, many at the Yom Kippur gathering said they didn't want the new Chabad center to turn into a heavily guarded bunker. Its very mission is to reach out to Jews who are away from home.
"I practically stalked them to find the location," said Sharon Zeevi, 27, an Israeli who is traveling across India. "I knew the Holtzbergs. I was with them here two years ago. I really wanted to find the new location."
A little later, she was pleasantly surprised to see a friend and fellow traveler from Israel. They hugged and laughed and caught up on each other's journeys.
"You found it," Zeevi told her. "Come, break your fast."