Saturday, November 29, 2008

Attack in Mumbai: Why The Jews?

Why the Jews?

195 people were killed in Mubai in nine separate locations, from the luxury Taj hotel, a “postcard spot” according to one TV journalist reporting from Sky news during the attacks, the other a major railroad station, another luxury hotel. But why chose a residential building and an apartment that is home to the Chabad House in Mumbai?

Rabbi Gavriel and his wife Rivka Holtzberg were two young Jews in their twenties. They were among the eight Jews killed in the Chabad house in Mumbai. They arrived in Mumbai in 2003 to serve the small Jewish community there, running a synagogue and Torah classes, and assisting Jewish tourists to the seaside city.

Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Israel Television’s Channel One that two men who supervised Jewish dietary laws were also apparently among the dead. They were later identified as Leibish Teitlebau, an American from Brooklyn, and Ben-Zion Croman, an Israeli with dual U.S. citizenship. The body of another Israeli woman was also discovered, but not identified as yet.

The front page of Friday’s Yideot Achranot newspaper showed a giant photograph of the Indian caregiver for the Holtzberg’s two-year old son Moishe. According to the headlines she hid in a closet during the initial attack. After several hours she heard Moishe calling for her. She snuck out of the closet, found the child beside his mother, who was slumped over, near another man who was lying hidden from her, only his bloody legs visible. She scooped the baby up, realized the terrorists were on the roof of the building, and ran for safety.

Later it was confirmed that Rivka Holtzberg was among the first causalities. It was unclear exactly how the tragedy played out.

Israel Television covered the events, and followed the drama as it unfolded. Reporters were sent to the Israeli town of Afula to interview Rivka’s parents, the Rosenbergs, both ultra-orthodox Israelis. The Rosenbergs told the reporters they were heading for Mumbai to take care of their grandson Moishe, and be close-by in case they were needed. Even though relatives in Israel warned them the trip was too dangerous, the grandparents went anyway.

Sadly for them the only thing they were needed for was to take care of Moishe and arrange for the return of the bodies of ‘Gabi and Rivki’ for burial in Israel.

Gabi Holtzberg was born in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. He was an emissary a “shaliach” for Chabad, a Jewish outreach organization based in Crown Heights. Over 4,000 “shluchiem’ are stationed around the world, from Katmandu to Santiago. The Chabad Houses are the way stations for Israeli and Jewish travelers who are seeking a Shabbat service and meal, some kosher food, or simply to find some Jewish companionship.

The annual Pesach Seder in Katmandu draws nearly 1,000 people, mostly young Israelis traveling in the Far East. The amazing fact is most of these young people have little or nothing to do with Judaism when they are in Israel.

“I come here to keep in touch with the Jewish community,” a Jewish high-tech businessman said at the Chabad House in Shangai last spring. “I’m not religious, but I want my children to have a feeling that they are still involved in Jewish affairs.”

This young businessman was on a three-year contract for his high-tech company, providing technical support for the company’s Chinese clients. He had four of the company’s staff in toe, all Israelis, who looked uncomfortable, and were unfamiliar with the Orthodox rituals.

However, the Chabad Rabbi, had a genuinely warm smile, accepting everyone in the congregation as an equal, without criticism. Nearly two hundred people filled the basement synagogue, including a busload of Hadassah ladies touring China. The Rabbi said nothing about their arriving by chartered bus, nor did he say anything about the Israelis driving to the service in their SUVs. Of course there were also orthodox Jewish men and women in the service. A fact of life for the observant Jew is that the Chabad Houses around the world become their Sabbath sanctuary, assured of a minyan and a kosher meal.

After the service a meal was served to anyone who wanted to stay. A sign announced that a fee would be appreciated, but payment was not obligatory. Anyone interested could send in a check, or come by, after Shabbat, of course. Nearly 150 people stayed for a full four-course meal, replete with kosher chicken and beef. Lunch the next morning was more of the same, but less people in attendance.

According to Chabad activists, each Chabad house is supposed to be self-sufficient, raising their own money for their support. Usually there is a Jewish day school, and nursery school, as well as daily services. In Bangkok two Chabad houses offer services, one to the “tarmalistim’, the backpackers who use the Chabad house not only as a place to get a free kosher meal, but also a place to meet other Israelis and other Jews traveling around the world.

Many times the Chabad House is the only synagogue for hundreds, perhaps thousands of miles. A Chabad House in Chang Mei, in Northern Thailand, is a popular spot for the Israelis touring that resort town, and the neighboring countries. Many times young backpackers will make their plans around a Chabad House, arriving on Friday, or the evening before a Jewish holiday, staying in a guest house recommended by the local rabbi.

The Chabad outreach program was the idea of the late Lubavitch Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh Lubavitch Rebbe. The Lubavitch movement began nearly two hundred years ago.

According to Wikipeia, the movement took its name from Lyubavichi, the Russian town which served as the movement's headquarters for over a century. Wikipedia claims Chabad has over 200,000 adherents and up to a million Jews attend Chabad services at least once a year, however other sources quote much less lofty numbers.

Lubavitch seems a huge movement, simply because of the number of ‘shulchim’ spread around the world, but in fact it is a small ultra-Orthodox movement based in Crown Heights, Brooklyn in New York City.Again, according to Wikipedia, Lubavitch adherents follow Chabad traditions and prayer services based on Lurianic kabbalah. As "Hasidim", they follow the Chassidus of Israel ben Eliezer.

Founded in the late 18th century by Shneur Zalman of Liadi, Chabad-Lubavitch has had seven leaders or rebbes. Menachem Mendel Schneerson succeeded his father-in-law, Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn in 1950, becoming the seventh leader of the movement, a position he held until his death in 1994. The movement is today without a Rebbe, and is split between those who believe the seventh Rebbe was the “Mosaich” or Messiah, those who think he was the Mosaich during his lifetime, and those who reject he was ever the messiah.

Today the movement runs thousands of centers around the world, Jewish community centers, synagogues and schools, providing outreach and educational activities for Jews. In a strange twist the sixth Lubavitch Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, the seventh Rebbe’s father-in-law, was rescued from the Warsaw Ghetto in 1939 by Major Ernst Bloch, a German officer in the Wehrmacht, acting on orders from his boss, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, the head of the German spy network the Abwher.

The goal of the Lubavitch Hassidm is to bring Jewish back to the Lubavitch brand of orthodoxy. The outreach is a way to capture the imagination and attention of Jewish people, mostly youth, who are open to new ideas as they move about the world.

Up until Friday, the Chabad House was an easy place to find, to go into and to leave. But the tragedy in Mumbai reportedly sent shock waves through the Lubavitch movement. From now on, one assumes, it will be much harder to get into the Lubavitch centers.

Following the attack in 1986 on Neve Shalom, Istanbul's largest synagogue, whose name means ''oasis of peace.'' 22 people, aged 30 to 82 were killed. Since then the synagogue has armed guards, hidden surveillance cameras, and tight security. To pray in the synagogue on Saturday one has to first call the synagogue offices, and go through a security check, and other procedures, before being allowed in the front door on Shabbat.

One expects the same will now be true for the Chabad Houses spread around the world.

None of this answers the question why terrorists would chose a Jewish target out of nine high profile attacks, other than the assumption that a Jew is always a good target, no matter where, or no matter when.