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Rabbi said no to security, left it to God

Holtzbergs of Nariman House hosted travelling Jews, from diamond traders to backpackers

Written by Yprajesh | Mumbai |
December 15, 2008 1:54:55 am

Israelis, in most parts of the world, are known to take their personal security seriously due to the violence spawned by the decades old Arab-Israeli conflicts. But Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, the Mumbai representative of the ultra-orthodox Chabad-Lubavitch Jewish movement — which believes that the world exists only through the intervention of God — was apparently not one among them.

In fact, so strong was the faith of Holtzberg, who ran the Chabad House centre in Mumbai and was killed by Lashkar-e-Toiba terrorists during the 26/11 terror attacks, that he had refused to put in place any security systems in his building in Colaba. This, Israeli sources said, may have ended up making the Jewish centre a “soft target” for the attackers who also killed Holtzberg’s pregnant wife Rivka and four Israelis visiting them.

“We had told him to put a fence on his wall, get a door buzzer or a security camera as a precaution,” said one source. But Holtzberg had said he didn’t feel the need. “He said, ‘In God we trust, God will help us, God will protect us’,” the source said, but added that the mindset was in keeping with the Chabad-Lubavitch philosophy. “They were not missionaries or anything of that sort. They just believed in making the world a better place to live.”

Although not the first, nuggets of information that portray the couple in glowing terms continue to flow. The Colaba building was owned by the Brooklyn, New York-headquartered movement and was basically a Jewish inn which provided kosher meals and religious services to travelling Jews. “It was like a very modest hotel,” another Israeli source said. “But it was very welcoming and accepted everyone, whether they were diamond trading Jews from Brussels or backpackers from Israel.”

In fact, Gavriel and Rivka are said to have been so generous that they would even deliver kosher meals to visiting Israelis lodged in police lock-ups or in jail for crimes they had committed. With the Chabad-Lubavitch movement being financially well-off, the centre did not charge visitors for the food or hospitality but donations were welcome.

This background of the Holtzbergs, and the fact that the Chabad House was hardly known to locals even in the immediate neighbourhood, has added to the mystery about how the Lashkar terrorists from Pakistan knew about them. Indian investigators are being helped by Israeli agencies in the probe and it is now believed that the area had been surveyed by the Lashkar or its local network well in advance.

One line being explored by the probe is if the Chabad movement had any history of animosity with Islamic groups. Sources said that Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh and last supreme leader of the Chabad movement who died in 1994, was known to be a hardliner over the Arab-Israeli conflict and opposed any territorial concessions to Palestinians. But they said this needed to be investigated and understood further before drawing any links.

For now, the Chabad-Lubavitch movement is reaffirming its faith in the divine and is also asking its followers, who have been shaken by the attack on the Holtzbergs, to do the same. The movement’s website has been flooded with metaphysical questions since the events of 26/11 with some followers saying they were confounded by the tragedy.

One anguished follower asks why God did not protect Gavriel and Rivka even though thousands of Jews were praying for them. In his reply, the online Rabbi cites the tortuous history of what was an underground movement in Communist Russia and says such ordeals were not new.

He then adds: “The main thing now is not to ask those questions. The main thing now is to help one another to be strong and rebuild. The orphan needs your help. The Jewish community of Mumbai needs your help. That’s where the money we collect will be going. Direct your outrage in a positive path.”

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