Unlike the over 175 other victims of November 26, there was no folly of fate involved in the handpicking of Israeli national Rabbi Gabriel Holtzberg and his wife Rivka, who are quickly turning into the global face of India’s most brutal Terror attack yet. And, while nobody will ever know for certain just how much information the terrorists had on the hostages especially selected for them at the Chabad House in South Mumbai’s most popular tourist district, tragedy had stalked the Holtzbergs.
Little Moshe, now back in Israel, will some day confront the gruesome tale of his orphaning but his older brother Dov will never know. Dov, 4-5 years old, suffers from Tay-Sachs disease, among the most common genetic disorders affecting Jewish babies. A terminal condition, the disease is degenerative and debilitating, with patients losing all motor skills as well as hearing and sight by the time they attain the age of five or six.
Sources close to the family said Dov is in palliative care in Israel. He is in the same facility where the Holtzbergs’ first-born, Mendy, died a couple of years ago of the same disease.
“It is a double tragedy for them,” says Dr Isaac Balbin, a Melbourne-based friend of the Rabbi and frequent visitor to Mumbai’s Chabad House. “For Moshe is free from the genetic disorder, as was the baby Rivka was bearing.” Balbin says Dov couldn’t recognize his father when the latter was in Israel last. “The child was on oxygen but this young couple chose to continue their mission in India, such was their commitment to their cause.”
Mumbai’s Jews agree that the selection of Nariman House was perfectly calculated — not only were the Rabbi and his wife Israeli Jews, but their influence among Indian Jews was on the rise. Gabriel was assisting the nascent Chabad house in Bangalore and was in touch with those running similar services in Manali and Goa.
Jews across India were writing to the Rabbi, in touch with him on various topics of religion and education. At the Kenneth Eliyahoo Synagogue in Fort, worshippers recollect that the quorum for prayers would often be completed as soon as the rabbi walked in with his wife and troupe of backpackers. Rabbi Gabriel was also a sort of guide for Israeli tourists on the heritage of Indian Jews, the Bene Israelis.
Balbin, who scouts for deserving Indian and Asian students who may need scholarships to study information technology at the RMIT College, Melbourne, where he is a professor, found out about the Colaba Chabad House five years ago. “It used to be almost impossible to get kosher food in Mumbai and elsewhere in India, and I used to pretty much carry food for 10 or 12 days while I lived at the Taj. That changed about five years ago when I heard of the Chabad centre and dropped in one day, unannounced.”
The centre was then being run out of the top floor of a ramshackle hotel in Colaba, not far from the Taj. Two years ago, a Ukrainian Jew bought out Nariman House, a Parsi-owned bungalow redeveloped into a six-storey building five years ago, as a donation to the institution. The new building was a transformation: Even if the narrow building was tucked away in a back lane in Colaba amid crumbling chawl buildings, from its terrace one has an uninterrupted view of the Gateway of India seafront on one side and, on the other, of the Cuffe Parade seafront where the terrorists are believed to have landed.
“Israeli tourists and Jews could walk in at any time for a meal, pay nothing and spend the night too. It was a place to sing together, observe holy days and interact,” says Balbin. “The Rabbi had grown into a young man of tremendous influence. He was almost the de facto chief rabbi of India,” Balbin says, recollecting how friendly Indians with “not a smell of anti-Semitism” would merely be curious about the Rabbi’s black coat and hat on a boiling hot Sabbath, but asked no questions, simply assuming he was “a Guru Maharaj ji of Jews”.
The new Chabad House had big plans: A meeting space for visitors, a dining space, an even larger library of religious books and Jewish texts, an Internet room to be used for free and rooms for visitors and staffers.
When Balbin was in Mumbai three weeks ago, he spent some time speaking to Rivka and showing her pictures of his own children. “She should be a bride,” Rivka said when she saw his oldest daughter’s photograph. A day after his daughter got engaged to be married, Balbin says, “She blessed me.”