Lifting candles high up in the air and swaying to the cadence of a song about the power of light, hundreds of Jewish community members, Indian officials and Israeli diplomats lit up the darkened street outside of Mumbai’s Nariman House Thursday night.

Occurring on the first anniversary of the worst terrorist attacks in the country’s history, the memorial ceremony at the five-story building that housed the city’s Chabad-Lubavitch center joined several other events across Mumbai. The ceremonies, according to Dr. Shashi Tharoor, Minister of State for External Affairs, represented “a clear message … that India and Indians will not be terrorized. Terrorist attacks anywhere in the world are an assault on our collective conscience as human beings and citizens of this one world.”

Speaking at the Chabad House – where exactly one year ago, gunmen charged up the stairs and holed themselves up inside for three days, killing the center’s directors, Rabbi Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg, and their four Jewish guests – Tharoor noted that his was the only country in the world that could boast of a Jewish community dating back 2,500 years and that, until Nov. 26, 2008, hadn’t been struck by the scourge of anti-Semitism.

But the center, said the official, was purposely sought out by members of a Pakistan-based terrorist network who wanted to add to the carnage at a spate of hotels, a restaurant and a train station with an attack on the Jewish religion itself.

The Holtzbergs “were known as a generous, loving couple,” continued Tharoor. “Let us now take a look at the extents to which evil can do damage. Evil and hatred have manifested itself on the windows, walls and steps of this house.”

Throughout the almost two-hour long ceremony, speakers invoked the memory of the Holtzbergs and the courageous heroism of their Indian nanny Sandra Samuel, who spirited the couple’s two-year-old son Moshe to safety during an apparent lull in the crisis. Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, chairman of the Chabad-Lubavitch educational arm, said that what made the attack at the Chabad House so painful was that “it was not a hotel.”

“It was the home,” he continued, “of a young couple who relocated from the United States, who opened their doors” to Jewish travelers and businesspeople, backpacking Israelis and local residents of all ages.

What motivated them, he said, was the teachings and example of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory.

“Gabi and Rivky established their lives in Mumbai not because they couldn’t find a comfortable life in New York,” a solemn Krinsky told the crowd. “They were inspired by a vision – the Rebbe’s vision – a vision that promised a brighter and kinder world.”

Dr. Shashi Tharoor, India's Minister of State for External Affairs
Dr. Shashi Tharoor, India's Minister of State for External Affairs

Moments of Joy

Attendees could have been forgiven for expecting to attend a somber memorial, more remembrances of the past than visions of the future. But while the speeches of family members and friends of the Holtzbergs included moments of gut-wrenching pain, eliciting tears from the audience, remarkably, the occasion also featured intense outpourings of joy.

Towards the end of the ceremony, which was broadcast live by the Web site, Chasidic singer Benny Friedman performed a popular Jewish song in English, Hebrew and Hindi comparing the world to a “very narrow bridge” and stressing that “the main thing is to be strong and have no fear at all.” Six native Mumbai residents, who had been taught by Gavriel Holtzberg, also got up on stage and started dancing and jumping in time to a melody they had sung on countless occasions with their friend and rabbi.

One of the students, 26-year-old Joel Kurulkar, remarked later that the experience brought his and his fellow Mumbaikars’ spirits “back to life.” He said that it felt like they were again dancing with Holtzberg on a Friday night.

“I wasn’t expecting it to go to such a level of spirituality,” explained Kurulkar, who met the Holtzbergs during their first Shabbat in Mumbai, in 2003. “We actually had happiness. All of my friends ran in the street afterward.”

The moment was a welcome development for Mumbai residents, whose sense of loss after the attacks was encapsulated by Israeli Ambassador Mark Sofer, who traveled from New Delhi to address the gathering at the Chabad House.

“Almost 200 people were killed last year, each and every one of them a world, dreams and families, all of these unfulfilled,” said Sofer, who cautioned that while he had a prepared speech, a recent tour of the shell of the Chabad House – its walls still riddled with bullet holes – had left him unable to speak from a text.

Israeli Ambassador to India Mark Sofer
Israeli Ambassador to India Mark Sofer

Referring to the Torah, which records that Jacob left the city of Beersheva to go to Charan, the ambassador said that scholars question the meaning of emphasizing the patriarch’s departure point.

“The answer,” stated Sofer, “is that when a great man leaves a city, the city changes forever. The life of the city, the life of the country, the life of the world is forever altered. If you look at what happened last year, a void has been left in Mumbai and it will never be the same.”

Speaking before Sofer, Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, the vice chairman of the Chabad-Lubavitch educational arm, essentially conceded that point. But the rabbi, who spoke with Gavriel Holtzberg regularly and helped arrange the substantial donation from philanthropist George Rohr that made the Nariman House a reality, promised that Mumbai would be stronger and that the Chabad House would be rebuilt “stronger than ever.”

“We will rebuild,” said Kotlarsky, “so that the light that shone and continues to shine from the souls of Gabi and Rivky Holtzberg will continue to shine throughout the world.”

People will look to the Chabad House, he added, and say, “Look! Their light continues to shine brighter and brighter. This is their legacy.”

Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz, director of the Chabad Mumbai Relief Fund and the evening’s emcee, just before the event told reporters that $2.5 million remained to be raised in the rebuilding campaign. With a year of mourning over, he said, the time had come to redouble efforts.

“We will never forget, but now the time has come to take the sackcloth of mourning off,” he said. “We will rebuild Mumbai.”