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'Hand of terror is very large'

Aseem Chhabra in New York | December 03, 2008

On December 2, even as Israelis buried six victims of the terrorist attacks at a Jewish outreach center in Mumbai, four Hasidic rabbinical students sat in the Chabad Lubavitch world headquarters in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, New York, reflecting on the events of last week.

Their thoughts were particularly focused on two of the victims -- Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife Rivkah, both in their twenties, who were running the Chabad House in Mumbai.

Among the four were two Americans, Menachem Posner and Schneur Lifshitz; one Australian, Pinny Raitman; and one Canadian, Shmuel Schneur. They had never met the Hotlzbergs, although Posner said he knew the late rabbi's father and older brother.

"I have a friend, not a Hasidic Jew like us, who has a legal translating company with many people working for him full time in Mumbai," Lifshitz said. "He would travel very often to Mumbai and he was ecstatic when Rabbi Holtzberg and his wife moved there. The Chabad House is open to Jews of all walks of life -- Hasidic, Orthodox, and Secular. My friend had some place to pray in Mumbai."

"His partner, who is not religious at all, has said that in New York he would have nothing to do with the religion," Lifshitz added. "But he loved going to Chabad House because he loved Rabbi Holtzberg and his wife. In New York he would not study anything about Judaism. But in India he was so fond of the rabbi, he would study until 1 o'clock in the morning."

Lifshitz described Holtzberg as a "special person" who had gone to India to serve the Jewish community there, and also tourists and businessfolk passing through Mumbai. And Posner clarified that as in other Chabad Houses across the world, Holtzberg was probably focusing on providing kosher food and performing prayers at his synagogue.

"It was kind of a home away from home for many people, especially travelers," Lifshitz said.

Lifshitz has special words for Sandra Samuel, the Indian nanny who ran out of the Nariman House building with the Holtzbergs' two-year-old son Moshe.

"She is a non-Jewish woman and she wasn't family," he said. "She loved the child and she risked her own life to save Moshe. She is an extremely righteous woman. God should bless her with everything she does."

Raitman first heard about the attacks on Mumbai late last Wednesday November 26. "The initial reaction was we did not know about the people in all the locations that these terrorists went to -- the train station, the hotels, the Jewish house and the (Leopold) restaurant," he said. "I am from Australia [Images], and it was a very popular restaurant with Western tourists. We were waiting to see, hoping for the best and that everybody would be safe."

"For me personally, from Wednesday afternoon to Friday morning, I was glued to the TV," Lifshitz said. "It was everything. The fact India was under attack, the fact that they were targeting Westerners and the especially to us, the fact that one of our Chabad Houses was being attacked. It was very, very scary. We were praying. Eighty five percent of the regular conversation between me and my friends would be about this."

Scheneur, the Canadian in the group, recounted that he had met a non-Jewish Indian family during his recent trip to the island of Dominica. When he learnt about the attacks in Mumbai, he immediately e-mailed the family to make sure that all were well.

Menachem felt that the acts of terrorism should unite people across the world. "Terrorism [Images] has spread in many parts of the world -- it's not just New York or Israel or Madrid, or London [Images] or Mumbai," he said. "People all over the world feel this is a problem we all suffer from. We all have to do something about.  It unites people in various places and the entire globe is in crisis, as it is staged in country after country."

Lifshitz was already seeing different communities come together after the tragedy. His brother is a Chabad House rabbi in Boise, Idaho, who hosted a memorial service which brought together 100 Jewish people, but also 15 people from India.

When asked whether anyone of them would go to Mumbai to take over Holtzberg's position, Posner paused to think.

"It will definitely be more challenging than say in New Jersey," he said. "It may be more rewarding, but harder to be away from family and friends. We do not speak the language or understand the culture."

But Lifshitz was sure he would go if he was asked to take over Mumbai's Chabad House operations.

"I might feel a little unsafe, but I have full faith that the Indian government would do everything to protect me," he said, adding that he had previously worked at a Chabad House in Thailand. "Ultimately you have to have faith in God. A terrible tragedy has happened there, but then September 11 happened right here in New York. Unfortunately, the hand of terror is very large and we do not know where it will strike next."

"It is a little bit scary now," Lifshitz said. "In the past you could go to other countries and come back and it is safe. But now it gives a little bit of a perspective, and maybe these countries we have traveled to aren't as safe as we have believed in the past."

Raitman would prefer mankind to perform more good deeds to counter the presence of terrorism.

"You should not show that you are afraid," Raitman said. "Ultimately that is what these people want to achieve. We the Jewish community and humanity in general have to move forward in doing increasingly good deeds. If 10 terrorists could cause such havoc, such destruction, can you imagine the impact of 100 people doing actions of goodness and what they could achieve?"

Image: from left, Schneur Lifshitz, Pinny Raitman, Shmuel Schneur and Menachem Posner at the Chabad Lubavitch world headquarters in Brooklyn, New York. Photograph: Paresh Gandhi.

Also read:

  • When the terrorists hurled a grenade and fired...
  • 'The congregation dissolved in tears at Moshe's grief'
  • 'Moshe was very thirsty and scared'
  • 'Rabbi Holtzberg has suffered a lot of hardship'
  • Inside Nariman House
  • Terror strikes at Mumbai's heart
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