NEW YORK (Reuters) A Brooklyn-based rabbi and his wife killed in the siege on a Jewish center in Mumbai had gone to serve Jews living far from their roots, fearing only that he would not be able to help as many as possible.
Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife, Rivka Holtzberg, were among the five hostages killed at the center and more than 144 people dead in Mumbai after the attacks by Islamist militants on luxury hotels and other sites in India’s financial capital.
Their son Moshe, who turns 2 on Saturday, was rescued by a nanny and has been handed over to his mother’s parents, Shimon and Yehudit Rosenberg, who flew to India from Israel.
Holtzberg’s parents, who live in New York, also arrived in India just before the Sabbath began, said Rabbi Chaim Cunin of the Chabad Center in Los Angeles.
“After he got married he was looking to make an impact in the world, in the Jewish world, and in his case reach out to people who are really, really far away both literally and spiritually from their roots,” said Rabbi Berel Wolvovsky of Maryland, a childhood friend of Gavriel Holtzberg.
“His fears were not fears of terrorism. His fears were of maybe not being able to help as many people as he’d like.”
Gunmen attacked the Chabad-Lubavitch Jewish Community Center in Mumbai’s Colaba district and took hostages, prompting Indian security forces to storm the center.
“The house was completely ruined from within, mainly from the explosions set off by the Indians,” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Israel’s Channel 1 television.
“They found five bodies — two women and three men. Some of the bodies were tied up. To judge by the accompanying signs, some of the people were killed a good number of hours previously.”
Holtzberg arrived in Mumbai in 2003 to run a synagogue and Torah classes as part of Chabad-Lubavitch Movement, which has about 4,000 emissaries at 3,300 sites around the world serving as rabbis and de facto consuls.
“He was a real mensch (person of honor) and we will miss him very, very dearly,” Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, who was in regular contact with Holtzberg from the New York headquarters, told reporters, his voice breaking with emotion.
Holtzberg, 29, was born in Israel and moved to Brooklyn with his parents at age 9. His 28-year-old wife, born Rivka Rosenberg, was a native of Afula, Israel.
Israeli officials say the Chabad center, tucked away on a narrow street, was targeted for being Jewish, but Cunin at the Los Angeles Chabad Center said the organization knew of no specific prior threats against the Mumbai center.
Since the attacks, however, he said there had been reports that the gunmen had rented an apartment in a building neighboring the Chabad Center, or possibly the same building.
“Our world is under attack. There are extremist Muslim elements who do not accept our values or our existence,” Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said in Jerusalem.
Chabad leader Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky told a news conference in New York the movement’s work would continue.
“Nothing deters us,” he said.
Cunin said the Holtzberg’s nanny was in a state of shock when she emerged from the building, but described seeing several people lying unconscious on the floor.
“She somehow locked herself into the first floor, and escaped before (the gunmen) had a chance to get to the first floor,” Cunin said.
He said the attacks would strengthen the resolve of the Lubavitch community to continue its outreach mission.
“The ‘rebbe’ teaches us when confronted with darkness, we respond with even more light,” Cunin said. “This is horrifically dark, so we must do even more. It tells us we have to be even more vigorous in our outreach efforts to spread goodness and kindness.”
Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Andrea Shalal-Esa in Washington; editing by John O'Callaghan