As the day wore on Friday in Mumbai, with no resolution at hand to what is now called by local news outlets as India’s worst terrorist attack in history, people worldwide anxiously awaited word on the fate of Rabbi Gavriel and Rivkah Holtzberg and others held hostage in their Chabad-Lubavitch center. Prayers continued around the clock, and a fund was established to help relief efforts in Mumbai at www.ChabadIndia.org.
Concurring reports indicated that at least one American rabbi and one Israeli rabbi, both kosher supervisors who had traveled to Mumbai on business, were in the Chabad House when suspected Islamic terrorists took the building by force Wednesday night local time. Other reports from news organizations and field personnel say that as many as 10 people could be in the Chabad House, not including anywhere from two to five gunmen.
The Holtzbergs arrived in Mumbai in 2003 to serve the small local Jewish community, visiting businesspeople and the throngs of tourists, many of them Israeli, who annually travel to the seaside city.
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Gavriel Holtzberg, 29, was born in Israel and moved to the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, N.Y., with his parents when he was nine. A prodigious student, Holtzberg was a two-time champion in a competition of memorizing the Mishnah, a compendium of rabbinical enactments redacted in the second century C.E.
He studied at yeshivas in New York and Argentina, and as a rabbinical student served communities in Thailand and China under the Summer Rabbinical Visitation Program run by Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of Chabad-Lubavitch.
His 27-year-old wife, born Rivkah Rosenberg, is a native of Afula, Israel. Chayki Rosenberg described her sister as dedicated to helping Jews.
She “gives lots of classes for women at the Chabad House,” Rosenberg told The Jerusalem Post.
Friends described her as always having a positive outlook and a kind word for everyone.
Two years ago, the Holtzbergs raised funds to purchas the current location of the Chabad House, a five-story building in Mumbai’s Colaba market area known as Narimon House. They operate a synagogue, teach Torah classes, provide drug rehabilitation services, and host scores of people for weekly Shabbat meals. A trained ritual circumciser and slaughterer, the rabbi also conducts weddings for local Jewish couples.
The last word heard from the couple came in the form of a phone call the rabbi placed to the Israeli Consulate shortly after the beginning of the attacks. The line went dead in the middle of the conversation. Based on the accounts attributed to the nanny who escaped to safety with the Holtzbergs’ toddler son Moshe, the couple and at least two others were believed to be unconscious.
Shots Fired at Chabad House
Beginning in the early morning Friday, Indian commandos began a full-fledged assault on the Chabad House, with troops airlifted in by helicopter while snipers trained their sites through windows from locations surrounding the building. Footage broadcast by IBN, CNN’s affiliate network in India, showed a person waving what appeared to be a Jewish prayer shawl from a mid-floor window after the military assault began.
As of 3:30 p.m. local time, the military was reported to be in control of the upper two floors of the building and working their way downward. Numerous shots and apparent grenade explosions rang out throughout the day.
News reports placed the death toll in the crisis at more than 125, with more than 327 people injured. The attacks began when suspected Islamic terrorists came ashore near the Gateway to India monument carrying plastic explosives, grenades and machine guns and quickly fanned out to a restaurant, the Chabad House, several luxury hotels, a hospital and two train stations.
On Friday morning, the Associated Press reported that Lt. Gen. N. Thamburaj held a press conference about security operations aimed at retaking the hotels and the Chabad House.
“It’s just a matter of a few hours that we’ll be able to wrap up things,” said the general.
To contribute to the Jewish community relief fund, click here.
-- Updated at 5:30 a.m. Eastern Time
Hundreds of thousands of Jews worldwide continue to pray for the welfare of Rabbi Gavriel and Rivkah Holtzberg, directors of the Chabad-Lubavitch center in Mumbai, India. Officials in New York and Israel, however, are growing increasingly concerned with each passing hour.
Many synagogues held special emergency prayer services on Thursday, and countless others responded to e-mail requests for the saying of Psalms. Meanwhile a team of 15 Chabad-Lubavitch representatives in California, New York, Washington, Israel, India and Bangkok worked the phones during the crisis, spending long, sleepless hours awaiting any morsel of information.
The at-times conflicting reports from the field have led those in contact with Israeli, American and Indian government officials to use a measure of caution when dissecting varying accounts of the violence still taking place in Mumbai.
Despite reports to the contrary, no one has heard from the Holtzbergs for almost 24 hours. Soon after the attacks began, Gavriel Holtzberg called the Israeli Consulate, but the conversation cut out. Since then, a suspected Islamic terrorist reportedly used Holtzberg cell phone to call India TV.
According to a transcript of that conversation, the man, 25-year-old Imran Babar claimed that there were five other persons with him at the Nariman House, where the Chabad House is located.
IBN, CNN’s sister network in India, aired footage of what appeared to be seven released hostages walking away from the Chabad House. Further reports from other sources, however, indicated that the people, who appeared to be local residents, may have come from neighboring buildings. Lights remained off at the Chabad House, and Indian commandos appeared ready to reenter the building.
The latest death toll in the attacks – which began Wednesday night local time when teams of terrorists armed with plastic explosives, machine guns and ammunition came ashore at the Gateway to India monument – stands at 125, according to IBN. Some 327 people are wounded.
Gunmen are also apparently still operating at the luxury Taj Mahal and Oberoi hotels.
The Holtzbergs’ toddler son, Moshe, managed to escape earlier in the day with his nanny. The Associated Press reported that the boy was unharmed, but was wearing blood-soaked pants. His grandparents from Israel were making their way to Mumbai to take care of him.
-- Updated Nov. 27 at 3:30 p.m. Eastern Time
On Thursday morning, one of the worst terrorist attacks to strike India continued in the financial center of Mumbai. Police and military operations were in progress at several locations, including popular hotels and a Jewish center in the Colaba section of the city.
Three people, including the toddler son of Rabbi Gavriel and Rivkah Holtzberg, walked out of Nariman House, home to Mumbai’s Chabad-Lubavitch center. The fate of the parents is unknown, but it is believed they are still inside.
According to numerous reports, a hostage crisis was still taking place at the center, as well as several hotels where gunmen started shooting late Wednesday. The Chabad House offers daily prayer services and Torah classes, and is a popular hangout among Israeli tourists.
The rescues came late Thursday morning local time. Various news organizations reported the death toll in the series of attacks as more than 100, with more than 300 injured. The apparently-coordinated strikes, which together form one of the worst incidents to strike India, began when suspected Islamic terrorists came ashore near the Gateway of India monument by boats and immediately targeted the Chabad House and several hotels. They then quickly fanned out to a central train station and other tourist locations.
Throughout the night, news out of Mumbai worsened. An initial police response was met by heavy resistance; at least three officers, including a top commander, were killed in gun battles. In addition, several explosions rang out at the Taj Mahal Hotel before flames spread through the building.
Before the attacks, one friend of Gavriel Holtzberg reported receiving an e-mail from the Mumbai rabbi at 11:30 p.m. local time. The Israeli Consulate was in touch with the rabbi, but the line was cut in the middle of the conversation. By daybreak, it was clear that terrorists were occupying the Chabad House, and a rapid-response team from the Indian military took over operations there.
People are urged to say Psalms for Gavriel Noach ben Freida Bluma, Rivkah bas Yehudis, and all others affected by the tragedy.
-- Updated Nov. 27 at 7:40 a.m. Eastern Time