Saturday, December 06, 2008

Mumbai and the Chabad Movement

Tragedy befalls a place of prayer and comfort.


Perhaps the most telling story I've heard about Chabad emissaries is that some will buy burial plots once they arrive at their distant outposts: It is a gesture to the community -- and perhaps also to themselves -- that they have come to stay.

I first discovered this Hasidic movement, which has captured the world's attention since the killing of several of its members in Mumbai, after 9/11. The world no longer felt safe and in the months after the attack, my husband and I would flee to the Hamptons, driving every weekend to the East End of Long Island, long after the glamorous summer crowds had gone.

One of the places we found open -- year round, in fact -- was the Chabad House in Southampton. The congregation was located inside a private house. Prayers took place in a cozy sanctuary the size of a living room as little children scampered about.

It was an Orthodox service but not oppressively so; men and women sat apart, divided by a row of plastic plants. I sat on a chair close to the plants, in the front, where I had full unfettered view of the pulpit, and for the first time in those awful months I felt safe.

I still remember the rabbi's first sermon, about the Valley of Dry Bones -- that amazing biblical passage where the dead come to life again. I thought of the hopelessness I had felt on 9/11, the collective hopelessness, but then, listening to the story of how even a bunch of bones had been brought back to life, I too felt a sense of possibility again. And safety.

I thought of that sense of safety and comfort as I watched the horrific events unfold in Mumbai, and specifically at the Chabad House.

I am absolutely certain that Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his pregnant wife Rivka, massacred by the terrorists, had also set up a safe-haven. Theirs was a retreat for Jews living in and around Mumbai or even those who were merely passing through.

I would venture that's one of the secrets behind the Chabad movement's extraordinary growth -- that they build little sanctuaries for lost Jews, alienated Jews, secular Jews, Jews who have no interest in traditional religion.

Chabad has redefined religion in part by getting away from the notion of large, formal temples to establishing places of worship that are small, intimate and, above all, deeply comforting; they have made religion personal.

And so, even as some other branches of Judaism and other religions have withered, they have ventured to the far corners of the earth: Siberia, Alaska, Kiev, Odessa, Ho Chi Minh City. But no matter where the Chabad house the philosophy is always the same -- to bring even the most alienated Jews back into the fold.

You go to a Chabad house and you can count on being invited to Friday night dinner by the rabbi and his wife. The model emphasizes old-fashioned notions of community and home -- the sense that religion is not a once-a-year affair but a way of life.

They have made inroads even among the militantly secular, I suspect, precisely because of their sense of conviction. No matter where they are in the world, in the Chabad houses of Siberia or Southampton the rabbis wear the traditional black hats and dark suits, the women long dresses and wigs. There is little attempt to blend in or assimilate.

It can be jarring to run into them on the streets of Southampton or South Beach, strolling in their religious garb, trying to ignore the stares of women in halters and fashionably dressed men in Bermuda shorts and sandals.

Of course, the determination to stay true to their practices may be what endangers the movement most now. They are, it would seem, easy targets.

I attended a memorial for the victims of Chabad Mumbai at my synagogue on Saturday. It was very crowded -- filled with people I had never seen before. Worshippers went up to the pulpit and pledged thousands of dollars.

The purpose? To build a new Chabad center in Mumbai.

Ms. Lagnado, a reporter for the Journal, is the author of "The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family's Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World" (Harper Perennial, 2008).

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